Digging into the practice of fracking

A horizontal gas drilling rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Pa., in this April 13, 2012 file photo.

(CBS News) Natural gas can be cheap and plentiful, and could supply us with energy for decades to come. But to get AT all that natural gas, you have to delve far beneath the surface of the earth. That's where FRACKING comes in. David Pogue of The New York Times reports our Cover Story:

What if I told you that we have a new source of fuel? It's cheap, it burns cleaner than coal, it's found right here in America, and there's enough of it for the next hundred years.

The fuel is natural gas. And the new source? Gigantic deposits of shale rock, miles underground. This one is called the Marcellus Shale. It covers 95,000 square miles, across four states.

The gas is locked in the rock. If you crack a piece off you can actually smell the gas inside.

Pogue toured a new shale-gas well with George Stark, who represents Cabot Oil and Gas, the second largest gas producer in the Marcellus.

"Typically we're pulling in, in an average day, almost three-quarters of a billion cubic feet of natural gas," Stark said. "It's going to heat homes. It's going to fuel our vehicles. It's going to create electricity."

And how do you get gas from shale? With a high-tech operation called fracking.

In fracking we drill way, way down, past the water table, as far as a mile deep and then - here's the technologically amazing part - we make a right turn, and drill horizontally through that layer of shale, so we can "slurp up" all the delicious oil and gas.

The next step, as described by Rob Jackson, a professor of environment sciences at Duke University, is "to inject millions of gallons of water and chemicals at very high pressures, pressures like you see in the deepest part of the ocean. And that pressure is what cracks open the rock and frees the gas and the oil."

Natural gas is trapped in billions of tiny pores. We fracture the rock to release it. Hence, the word fracking.

Now, we've been fracturing rocks for oil for more than 60 years. But in the last decade, we've totally transformed the process by adding that horizontal business . . . all the chemicals . . . and the colossal pressure of the water.

Fracking is two weeks of noisy trucks and dust; after that, the finished well quietly pumps out gas for 30 to 50 years.

Fracking can turn struggling farmers into millionaires. Bob and Tina MacCheyne signed away the rights to the shale under their farm, but the money isn't flowing yet. They live in New York State, which so far hasn't permitted fracking.

Now they're having second thoughts because they're afraid fracking might affect their water supply.

"We support probably 40-some beef cows here," Bob MacCheyne told Pogue. "Money isn't everything. I mean, if we don't have quality water here, we don't have anything."

"We don't have a farm," Tina added.

Ramsay Adams, who runs the environmental group Catskill Mountain Keeper, describes the problems: "You've got spills, you've got aquifer pollution. Fracking is a very industrial process that uses chemicals that are toxic, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting."

As it turns out, fracking is just a tiny bit controversial.

In Matt Damon's new movie, "Promised Land," the fracking company is the bad guy.

As you'd guess, the gas industry says that the dangers are overblown.

Said Stark, "Bottom line, 99 percent of it is water and sand. We use a biocide, a hand sanitizer, to make certain that we don't send living microorganisms down into the shale. We can't afford to have corrosion taking place, so we add an anti-corroded agent. The last thing we're talking about adding is what we refer to as a surfactant. Funny name, but it's really hand soap."

Actually, according to the EPA, the chemicals are slightly scarier than hand soap - chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene, diesel, hydrochloric acid, glycols.

"These are things that you don't want in people's drinking water, and you don't want sloshing around the environment," said Jackson.