Shut Up and Drill: Why Fracking Could End the Age of Gas Price Spikes

Drivers of the world, rejoice: The technology behind the natural gas revolution could give us a more flexible and dependable source of gasoline
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For decades, a specter has haunted the U.S. economy: the specter of surging gas prices. From the malaise years of the 1970s to the early 21st century spike when a gallon of gas climbed from $0.90 in 1999 to more than $4 a gallon in 2008, family's lived in fear that we were one Middle East conflict away from another painful bite into our paycheck.

But what if I told you we could end that pain with one word. Fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a.: fracking) is the drilling technology that has produced a slew of cheap domestic natural gas. Some energy analysts suggest that it could do the same for oil and gasoline. That sounds crazy. Here's why it might not be.

Getting oil from earth crust to car is an arduous process that makes it susceptible to price surges. Oil fields have to be discovered, wells dug, pipelines constructed, and refineries erected. Each one of these investments is enormously expensive. Once in place, the system can produce constant flow for decades: up the well, down hundreds of miles of pipeline, into a refinery's distillation tower, through a series of chambers for oxygenation and blending, and ultimately poured out as consumer-ready gasoline.

Oil recovery and refinement is a marvel of engineering, but a disruption in the process can be catastrophic. Wars, embargoes, or refinery fires could shut down that flow, and nothing can be done in the near term to replace it. Gasoline stockpiles collapse, prices rise, and that familiar American syndrome would settle in.

Fracking is altogether different. It's not just an innovative way to get at previously unreachable oil reserves. It alters the very nature of the oil and gasoline supply chain.

A traditional well might produce 50 barrels of oil a day when it opens, but it will produce close to that for more than a generation. Newly fracked wells have been known to produce over 7,000 barrels a day. That torrent will slow to a trickle in as a little as 18 months, but the rush of oil fundamentally changes the dynamics. OIl is produced so quickly there often isn't time to lay pipelines. Much of the oil from North Dakota's prolific Bakken Shale has made it to market by train.

Train transport is more expensive, but it also more flexible. Pipelines have a fixed destination, but tanker cars can unload anywhere a terminal is designed to accept oil. These facts -- gushing wells and flexible delivery by rail -- mean that fracked oil operations function more like a just-in-time service than a decades-long industrial investment.

The oil itself is also different in composition. Traditional crude is thicker and heavier. Refineries are designed to make the most out each barrel, separating out the light components (which become gasoline) medium components (diesel fuel and kerosene), and heavy components (asphalt).

Fracked oil rarely contains heavier molecules. Much of it nearly qualifies as natural gasoline, a descriptor typically applied to certain liquids extracted at natural gas processing facilities. Natural gasoline, as the name suggests, is very close to the stuff you that you put in your car and requires relatively mild refining and blending before it can be sold at the neighborhood gas station. For fracked oil, the heavy-duty refining operations designed for conventional oil are overkill.

As a result, older East Coast refineries that were once slated to be shut down -- like Sunoco Philadelphia -- have been revived as destinations for fracked crude. These refineries cannot compete with the sophisticated operations on the Gulf Coast and Midwest when it comes to processing thicker grades, but they can handle the light, fracked oil just fine.

This new oil production chain is still maturing, but it promises exactly what gasoline consumers have longed for: an industry that responds to shortages with increased supply rather than increased prices. In Eagle Ford, operators have been able to drill wells in as little as 10 days. Within a month those wells will produce millions of barrels of oil. That oil can be delivered by tanker car to just about any refinery in the nation and processed into gasoline.

Crises will continue to erupt and global oil supplies will continue to be threatened. Yet, now we have the means to fight back. The production of gasoline from domestically sourced, hydraulically fracked oil can be ramped up within months, and ever increasing pain at the pump can finally be relieved.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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