Radio_Feature_06-2013

Fracking explained and demystified

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is a nationally syndicated public radio program that has been telling the story of how human creativity helped shape our culture for a quarter century. Episode topics have ranged “from cable cars to Civil War submarines, from the connection between Romantic poets and Victorian science to the invention of the bar code.”

It’s a great show, which is why I was particularly pleased that it recently addressed a topic much in the news these days but one not always well understood by the public: hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking).

By now most Americans are aware of how innovations tied to hydraulic fracturing have unlocked vast supplies of domestic energy. This expanded production has generated new jobs, economic opportunities and tax revenues around the country. But there are still many who are suspicious of the process and mistakenly think it is a recent and unproven technological practice that carries undue risks.

Not so, according to the folks at KUHF-FM in Houston who produce The Engines of Our Ingenuity.

Their recent episode on hydraulic fracturing does a great service by showing how the modern practice of cracking dense, low-permeability rock to let oil and natural gas escape is not new at all. In fact, it dates back to the late 1940s, when Harry Truman was in the White House and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart were the toast of Hollywood.

The show not only delves into the history of the oil and natural gas industry that led to hydraulic fracturing, it gives a straightforward description of what the process involves. (For even more on the process, see this video from the American Petroleum Institute.)

It also describes how hydraulic fracturing has been combined with another proven technology – directional drilling, which dates back to 1921 and became commonplace in the petroleum industry in the 1980s.

Today this combination is being applied to areas whose energy deposits once were considered too difficult or uneconomic to develop, like in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Marcellus shale plays.

“The process of ‘invention’ isn’t always about creating something new,” says host Steve Hendrickson. “It’s just as often about seeing new ways to combine the things we already know.”

That’s what makes the story of our national economic transformation so remarkable. It’s the consequence of two old, proven technological processes being combined in a novel way. The result is a new era of energy abundance in the United States that is upending the traditional thinking about scarcity and energy that has dominated public policy for decades.

To truly understand the story of how hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling are doing that, it helps to understand the underlying technological processes and how they fit into the story of American ingenuity and innovation. That’s why The Engines of Our Ingenuity’s segment on fracking is worth your time.

The show’s transcript can be found here, accompanied by several helpful photos. Or, if you prefer something closer to the authentic radio experience served up by KUHF-FM, I invite you to click here, sit back and enjoy.