We've Been Fracking Since the 1940s?

In the last few years, various environmental groups have tried to portray hydraulic fracturing -- sometimes known as "fracking" -- as a new process, but in reality the process is anything but new.

According to David Bleakley of the Eastern Kansas Oil and Gas Association, hydraulic fracturing -- where water is pumped down a well to rupture the oil-bearing strata hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface -- has been in use since the late 1940s. The first "frack" was performed in western Kansas in 1947. What is relatively new is the combining of horizontal drilling techniques and fracking, but even this process has been used for more than a decade.

Fracking has become a convenient club, not just in major oil-producing states such as Oklahoma and Texas, but also in minor production states like Kansas. Bleakley claims that whether it's environmentalists, people who favor another industry, or the landowners, it's become a strategy to use fracking as an excuse. Bleakley believes part of the problem is that people opposed to fracking in particular and oil and gas exploration in general do not generally clarify all their connections.

Joe Spease, a high-ranking member of the Kansas Sierra Club, is also president and CEO of WindSoHy, a firm specializing in so-called renewable energy. He has a vested interest in restricting the production of more traditional forms of energy. On March 5 of this year, Spease debated Ed Cross of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association without revealing his ties to the renewables industry. Says Bleakley:

You know exactly what Ed Cross is. (But in the case of Spease) you're not only (the fracking committee chairman) of the Sierra Club but you're president of a wind industry company. Let's have transparency about the people in the debate.

Bleakley says the motives of many of the environmental groups which go after the oil and gas companies are simply monetary: they file lawsuits ostensibly to "protect the environment," but are happy to settle:

If you're an environmental attorney this is great. You finally wear down the companies -- "I know this is extortion, but what do I have to pay to have you go away?"

One legitimate concern is the water used to make the fracks. About 99 percent is salt water, and the rest is a series of chemicals -- mostly surfactants which make water "slicker" -- but the exact composition is usually proprietary information unique to each company. That water is highly toxic and is pumped back down secondary wells called "injection wells," anywhere from two to four miles underground.