Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic Fracturing


There are many misconceptions about hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, causing it to become an increasingly controversial subject in the U.S.  Fracking aims to retrieve oil and natural gas trapped in rock beneath the surface. Drilling wells, like in the photograph above, allow sand, water and chemicals to be pumped down at a high enough pressure to crack the rock deposits so that natural gas can be collected. There are several main issues in the fracking process.

One of those issues is the mixture of chemicals used often includes methanol, formic acid and other possibly dangerous substances (see chart below) which are pumped at around 5,000 g/1 million g of water. The toxic wastewater that returns back up (about 20%) is then treated and recycled or pumped into impermeable rock beneath the surface. Sometimes it is dumped illegally. Fracking consumes millions of gallons of water each year, yet this small compared to practices like agriculture which uses about the same amount of water in one day than fracking uses in one year. According to Energy Collective,“If shale gas is used to generate electricity at a combined cycle gas plant and displace coal-fired power, the quantity of water consumed per unit of electricity generated could fall by on the order of 80 percent.”

It is a major concern that the chemicals used during fracking will move up into our aquifer and contaminate drinking water. This is actually very unlikely due to the great distance it would need to travel and the fact that this toxic fluid is too dense to travel upwards. However, there have been instances of groundwater being contaminated from spills during transport and pipe leaks. These accidents can be lessened by stricter regulations for companies such as stronger, properly poured cement, liners and more careful operations in general. In 2009 a spill in Pennsylvania caused 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid containing possible carcinogens to contaminate a local creek, killing many fish. More efficient pipelines that lessen the need for travel via trucks could also help to reduce these types of spills. It would be difficult to ever completely eliminate the risk of accidental pollution, but there is room for improvement.

Also, fracking causes air pollution when greenhouses gases like methane escape into the atmosphere during drilling and shipping. Wells which were abandoned before certain regulations came into place were not plugged, either at all or correctly. Therefore they are emitting pollution constantly, and are also a hazard to local children and animals. On the other hand, many industrial activities emit pollution, and the cost on air quality is far greater from other areas like coal-fired electricity generation plants.

There have been claims that fracking emits radiation, but this fact is still under review.. The Department of Environmental Protection did a study in Pennsylvania in 2013 on the effects of fracking on radiation.

The results stated“While the study outlines recommendations for further study, it concluded there is little potential for harm to workers or the public from radiation exposure due to oil and gas development.” Other studies, however show an increase in radiation in the soil near drilling sites.

Fracking is beneficial to the United States because it is a cleaner energy source than coal and allows the American economy to be less globally dependent. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency website, “Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.”