Beneath the Surface

The United States holds enough oil and gas to power the country for hundreds of years, and Colorado is at the center of the search for energy resources. Using a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—and new drilling techniques, oil and gas companies are able to extract these previously inaccessible fossil fuels. These technologies may be the biggest step yet toward securing our energy independence. But at what cost?

December 2012


As America looks for more energy resources, the word “fracking” has become part of the lexicon. But what does it really mean?

There it is, that word—frack—with just two small letters separating it from one of the most vulgar, reviled words in the English language. We read about fracking in newspapers; we see it on the evening news; we hear it in political stump speeches. And, you know what? It’s difficult to know what to think. The industry calls it a modern oil and gas revolution. Others argue that fracking is creating health problems today—and that we have no idea what sorts of issues will pop up 10, 20, 30 years from now. One thing is certain: Fracking has become one of the most contentious debates of our time. Before we dig into some of these issues, let’s get one thing straight: What is fracking, anyway? • “Fracking” is shorthand for “hydraulic fracturing,” a process used to extract oil and gas locked in dense rock formations thousands of feet beneath Earth’s surface. In order to unlock these resources, companies inject a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals underground at an extremely high pressure, which fractures the dense rock and allows the oil and gas to seep from those fissures to the surface. A version of this process was first attempted in 1947 in an oil well in southwestern Kansas, not far from the Colorado border. • Since then, the fracking process has evolved, and perhaps more important, drilling techniques have evolved, too. In the past decade or so, oil and gas companies have developed what’s known as horizontal drilling, in which they drill vertically into the ground, hang a right, and continue drilling parallel to the surface for up to two miles. Sometime around 2005, when oil and gas companies began fracking horizontal wells, production started to boom. Long, narrow, and dense rock formations that were previously inaccessible sprouted bull’s-eyes. • In this package, we examine this complicated, controversial procedure, and many of the questions it raises. Will fracking lead us to energy independence? Or will it drive us farther down the road to environmental armageddon? As Colorado continues to be at the forefront of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, the answers to these questions, and many others, will be central not only to energy policy in the coming years, but also to the health and well-being of the people fracking affects.

Frack vs. Frac

Even the spelling of the word “frack” is controversial: Oil and gas industry folks, geologists, and linguists make the case that the accurate way to shorten the term “fracture” is “frac.” No “k.” That would mean that the shorthand would be “fracing,” or, for purists, the contraction “frac’ing.” 

Of course, English is a strange language, and, right or wrong, “fracking” has become the most commonly used spelling of the term. Critics say that this version is just a tool employed by environmentalists and protestors to perpetuate their negative campaign by associating “frack” with…well, you know what.