The term Fracking comes as a shortened form of the term hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is not necessarily new; however, it does account for the boom in natural gas extraction in the US in recent years.
What is Fracking?
Geologists identified long ago that vast reserves of fossil fuels lie locked in the shale deposits deep underground. The mining industry has been aware of these deposits, but have had limited success in drawing out the resources due to the nature of the rock and poor flow. These resources remained untapped largely because it was cost prohibitive to do so.
Fracking had been done as far back as the 1940s; however, it really took off in the 1990s when combined with the ability to conduct horizontal drilling. Once fracking was identified as a viable means to draw out the resources in a profitable manner, the United States natural gas boom had begun.
In simple terms, fracking is the process by which fracturing fluid (a mixture of water, sand, and proprietary additives) is pumped underground in extreme pressures in order to cause fractures along fissures in the rock and shale deep underground.
Hydraulic fracturing has been met by environmentalists with substantial resistance. To understand why, we need to dig deeper into how the process takes place.
First, a well is drilled and a steel pipe is inserted into the well hole. This pipe casing has holes in it designed to allow the fracturing fluid to escape in target areas underground. In some cases, acids are used in the fracturing fluid as are methane and other gasses. This fluid is injected under tremendous force resulting in the creation of small fissures underground. The sand in the fracturing fluid holds the fissures open while enabling natural gas or other petroleum products to be drawn out.
Why Are There Environmental Concerns?
The documented concerns with hydraulic fracturing are extensive. Some of the more prominent environmental concerns include:
- Groundwater Contamination: This largely ties back to the fracturing fluid used. Up to 40,000 gallons of chemicals mixed with 8 million gallons of water may be required for a single well. Those chemicals may be stored in open pits above ground near the well site. Unfortunately, much of this material remains in the well after the well has been shut down (up to 90%). This allows for future contamination of ground water as the toxic (and now radioactive) fluid follows the fissures created during the fracking process. Oil companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used in their fracturing fluid, so we may never know the extent or complete toxicity of the contaminations.
Finally, ground water wells are typically at a depth of a few hundred feet whereas these drilling locations are typically at a depth of several thousand feet. Proponents of fracking argue that the risk to groundwater contamination should be small.
- Pollution: Methane escaping during the mining process is a primary concern here. Studies have shown that up to 4% of the methane produced by a well is actual lost to the air. Note that methane is 25-times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
It has been reported that air pollution in pristine Wyoming is actually worse than Los Angeles near drilling sites where fracking takes place. Similar results have been seen in drilling places such as Montana.
- Waste Disposal: Storage of the toxic slurry used as fracturing fluid falls under the direction of state regulations.
280 billion gallons of wastewater was collected in 2012. In spite of this, many of the states where fracking takes place do not have the requisite policies for how to safely collect and store the wastewater in order to protect the citizens and the environment.
- Water Consumption: Wells may require up to 8 million gallons of water.
The water once combined with the fracturing fluid becomes highly toxic while also absorbing radioactivity that naturally exists underground. This is a tremendous loss, especially in those states that experience drought conditions.
- Earthquakes: Scientists refer to the earthquakes created through the injection of underground material as induced seismic events.
Areas that had not experienced an earthquake in hundreds of years now experience them on a routine basis. While most of these are small, they have been known to have a magnitude greater than 5.0. Induced seismic events have been documented in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.
- Lack of Regulatory Control: Extensive exclusions and exemptions have been granted to the oil and gas industry. This has transferred regulatory oversight to the states which in almost all cases have not done this before and have no infrastructure in place to support regulation adherence.
The Department of Energy conducted an assessment in 2011 and published their report Shale Gas Production Subcommittee 90-Day Report. In their report, they summarized four key areas for concern:
- Potential for pollution of drinking water from the chemicals in fracturing fluid.
- Air pollution.
- Communities may be adversely impacted from local production.
- Cumulative adverse impacts from shale production on communities and ecosystems.
June 2015, the EPA produced their report titled “Assessment of Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources”. The results of this report were frightening to environmentalists and include findings such as the following:
- Identified potential circumstances where hydraulic fracturing could contaminate drinking water.
- Identified specific examples where one or more of the circumstances led to a contamination of drinking water including the contamination of well water.
- Identified where spills of fracturing fluid have contaminated drinking water. Examples have been identified in both ground water and surface water.
- Identified circumstances where fracturing fluid was inadvertently injected directly into local drinking water supplies.
The report further explained that the specific count of these examples is small.
Fracking Health Effects
The growth seen in the industry has happened very recently. As such, there are no long-term studies demonstrating the health impacts to those working in the industry or living in the communities affected. What is known is that OSHA assessments of air quality around drilling sites have identified airborne pollutants at thresholds 10-times greater than what is permitted at any job site.
Over 630 chemicals used in the fracking process have been identified to date. This list is again incomplete due to government protection of trade secrets that corporations are permitted to maintain. Nearly half of these chemicals may have an affect on the brain, nervous system, heart, and kidneys. Over one third affect the endocrine system. 25% of the chemicals are known to cause cancer. This is according to a 2011 article “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective” published in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment.
A global community has risen in support of fracking bans. Several European nations have taken the lead including France and Bulgaria. Additionally, political demonstrations have blocked drilling in England and Poland.
It is true that progress made in hydraulic fracturing has yielded a greater level of independence from coal. And while carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas are lower than burning coal, the real concern is the loss of methane during the mining process.
Regardless of the depth, over 80,000 wells have been drilled or permitted since 2005. That represents 80,000 potential circumstances where several million gallons of toxic sludge will be pumped into the ground.
Recommendations If You Do Not Support Fracking
- Support the prohibition of fracking in your state.
- Support the removal of environmental regulatory exemptions.
- Support keeping fracking away from national heritage sites, national parks, state parks, and sources of drinking water.
- Continue to support endeavors that seek to replace fossil fuels with sustainable energy solutions!
So what does all this really mean? There is much we don’t understand about the short and long term impact fracking will have on the environment. Just because there is no contamination to the water supply now doesn’t mean there won’t be an issue in the future. If this radioactive sludge reaches our drinking water supply this can be devastating.
We believe people should be aware of practices like fracking so further research and regulations can be implemented to protect our future wellness. We want this issue to be on the radar as something to watch, so please help us spread the word about fracking.