GSA Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, USA - 2017

Paper No. 141-4
Presentation Time: 2:15 PM


VALENCIUS, Conevery Bolton, Department of History, Boston College, Stokes Hall South, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467,

People with knowledge of oil and gas or the earth sciences tend to regard hydraulic fracturing as the successful result of a long series of technological advances. Since the late 19th century, operators have fractured and treated rock to coax out fossil fuels. Hydraulic fracture, horizontal drilling, the staged frac, the assortment of proppants and fluids, multi-drill well pads, and improvements to pumps, engines, training, and well pad logistics are all rooted in a long history.

To many outside the industry or the earth sciences, hydraulic fracturing is a dramatic new intervention. Its newness is part of why “fracking” is so dangerous: we are implementing at massive scale a set of interventions that have yet to stand the test of time. No wonder the colloquial term sounds like a cuss word.

Debates over hydraulic fracturing thus take place in a fundamental disagreement over what is new or old in the history of the technology.

Yet in one key debate over fracking, divisions are about a very different kind of history.

In 2010, soon after wastewater injection wells began to service new hydraulic fracking production wells, north-central Arkansas was shaken by numerous small tremors. Citizens reacted in great numbers with outrage. The state regulatory agency shut down the wastewater injection sites, and the quakes almost completely stopped.

Similarly, soon after the development of shale gas plays began to send wastewater down injection wells, northern Oklahoma began to shake with frequent and increasingly powerful earthquakes. An M5.7 tremor epicentered in Prague Oklahoma in November of 2011 caused structural damage. Yet although some Oklahomans protested against seismicity induced by large-volume injection, many others saw a few tremors as a modest price for a shale boom. Oklahoma took until Spring 2015 to take significant regulatory action on induced seismicity.

The essential difference in the two states lies not in the history of technology, but in social history. A state with deep oil and gas extractive history, whose citizens have long personal experience with the industry, creates different perspectives than a state where oil and gas is a minor and largely new player.

Telling the history of the technology is important: but it is only half the story.