Protecting the environment and meeting the energy needs of our planet’s seven billion people is a balancing act.Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracing,” or “fracking”) was relatively uncommon until 2003, when energy companies expanded natural gas exploration to shale formations in Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Utah, West Virginia, and Maryland.
In 2004 the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that hydraulic fracturing wasn’t a threat to water supplies, and soon the practice was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the Bush administration.The history of fracing, however, goes back to the American Civil War era. Wounded on a Virginia battlefield, Col. Edward A.L. Roberts witnessed what he would later realize to be the process of shale fracturing. As a confederate artillery barrage railed a nearby canal, Roberts lay bleeding, but inspired.He would soon patent the “Roberts torpedo.” His procedure entailed lowering a torpedo into a well filled with water. It would then be launched down into the strata below, the water preventing the explosion from moving upwards. Those rocks contained natural gas that would be impossible to reach without the help of the concentrated blast.Roberts ingeniously combined his battle prowess with the scientific advancements of 1860s America. His invention increased well production by 1200 percent after a week of action, and Roberts became very rich over time.More recently, the marriage of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling (an incredibly complex process that uses sensors to reach minuscule targets thousands of miles away) allows the drillers to “frack” more than 5000 feet of rock.It is a marvel of engineering, one that has inspired ranchers and farmers to lease out their land to oil and gas companies. These firms pay a premium for access to the rocks thousands of feet underneath the surface. Through the use slant, or horizontal, drilling, the farmland itself is minimally disrupted.Just as Texan ranchers became multimillionaire oilmen in the early 20th century, New York farmers have found themselves the beneficiaries of a new era of oil profits. Still, New York has some of the most stringent regulations on hydraulic fracturing, and other states are following suit.New wells mean new jobs, from construction to engineering. They diminish our reliance on foreign oil, and provide families a chance to live the American dream. But the balancing act between energy production and environmental stewardship continues, and will likely continue for some time.