American energy production is skyrocketing, and pundits are promising everything from millions of jobs to energy independence. All of this could be put in jeopardy, though, if we don't get serious about the accompanying risks and make sure that oil and gas development is done right.
The United States is now the world's largest producer of natural gas. Meanwhile U.S. oil production increased last year by over 300 million barrels -- its biggest jump since the industry began in 1859.
There's good reason to believe that these changes have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Meanwhile increased production of cleaner burning natural gas has helped cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to their lowest level in more than a decade. And while claims of looming "energy independence" are wildly over the top, there's no question that the oil and gas boom is making the country more secure in the world.
These changes are driven by a technique known as "fracking," short for hydraulic fracturing, which is being used to produce oil and gas trapped in dense shale rock.
Drillers dig down thousands of feet underground, take a sharp turn, and then bore thousands of feet further sideways. Then they pump a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into the new L-shaped well, and detonate explosives to create tiny cracks in the surrounding shale. Oil and gas flows through those cracks and eventually up to the surface where it can be collected, shipped, and sold.