Shale Plays in America: A Brief Review of the Good and Bad of Today’s Oil Boom

Nearly halfway through 2012 and here we have a thriving oil boom in many areas of the U.S. The oil boom is our answer, our counterpoint, in an economy that continues to struggle in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. And it's not just oil. It's natural gas, too. We have technological developments in drilling to thank for unlocking reserves of oil and natural gas under shale rock formations. The technology is called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for short, and is responsible for both the good and bad of today's oil boom.

Our Abundant Shale Plays

Shale rock is not easy to drill through. Shale is sedimentary rock, often black or gray in color, made of minerals like quartz and calcite. Not all shale rock is the same, geologically-speaking, but suffice it to say that there are significant shale resource plays throughout the U.S., including the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia; the Bakken Shale in North Dakota; and the Barnett Shale and Eagle Ford Shale plays in Texas. The geographic boundaries of shale plays aren't confined to individual states; they tend to bleed over into other states and even into Canada.

The Glory of Hydraulic Fracturing

At least 15 separate shale plays are known to exist in the U.S. alone, all of which are producing oil and natural gas from fracking. But it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that fracking gained prominence as a method of extracting fossil fuels from beneath shale rock reservoirs. And it hit its stride in the 1990s, when plays like the Barnett Shale in North Texas really grew in production, causing classic oil boom towns to spring up on it.

Fracking widens pre-existing fissures in shale rock. Thousands of gallons of water, mixed with sand and a proprietary cocktail-blend of chemicals, are pumped through a well bore. The result is a release of pressure that allows oil and natural gas to escape through those cracked fissures in the rock, where it shoots to the surface and is collected for processing.

Homeowners with perches near or above shale rock reservoirs, for better or for worse, were told by oil men that there were unbelievable fossil fuel deposits lying in wait underneath, but that it was just too expensive to extract.

But then advances in fracking came along, and the same thing that ended up happening in the Barnett Shale - a ramp-up in production, population growth, traffic congestion, altered lifestyles for long-time residents, etc. - is now happening in places like the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas.

It's a regular oil boom.

The Good and the Bad of Today's Oil Boom

Natural gas reserves in the U.S. have increased extraordinarily. Oil and gas jobs are being added by the thousands. Oil firms need everyone from ditch-diggers to skilled engineers, from short-order cooks to experienced truck drivers with commercial driver's licenses and clean driving records.

When it comes to housing supply, local government cannot keep up with demand, and stocks have dwindled to the point that entrepreneurial homeowners can turn into ready-made landlords, charging five, 10, or 15 exhausted oil and gas workers weekly rent for a spot to crash in the garage, earning more than enough to cover the mortgage.

One of the worst parts of the oil boom is the deteriorating roads. It takes literally hundreds of trips with large-haul trucks just to develop one well site. And there are an estimated 200,000 well sites to be created in the coming years. The roads, which in places like the Eagle Ford Shale, were never meant to take such a pounding, are already failing from a lack of maintenance and repair.

And the worst part is the human cost: both truck drivers working for the oil and gas industry (driving 18-wheelers, oil tankers, and all manner of other types of vehicles) and car drivers are getting into an extraordinarily high number of serious motor vehicle accidents. Moreover, roughnecks and other workers have been at risk, and will continue to be at risk, in their jobs, jobs which are some of the most dangerous in the country.