Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a technique used to extract natural gas from shale rock layers deep in the earth. This process was developed and first used in the mid-to-late 1940s; and to date, the U.S. has over a million successful applications.
Fracking involves first drilling into the shale rock layer of the earth and then directing/injecting a high pressure mixture of water, sand, and other chemicals into the rock to create fractures that allow the oil and natural gas to escape. These then flow out to the head of a well to be captured & processed for our energy consumption.
The process is commonly done by drilling horizontally into the rock layer; however this process can be carried out vertically as well. Either way, this creates new pathways for gas to be released or simply used to extend existing channels.
Fracking’s first advantage lies in its ability to get at hard to reach places. There are many places where resources of oil and gas are plentiful, but inaccessible without a drilling process such as this. According to BBC News, fracking has “significantly boosted domestic oil production and driven down gas prices in the US,” and has “presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal.”
The National Petroleum Council estimated that hydraulic fracturing would eventually account for nearly 70% of natural gas development in North America. In the United States, 45% of domestic natural gas production and 17% of oil production would be lost within 5 years without usage of hydraulic fracturing.
The US has been extensively using fracking since its roots in the 1940s, and the process has revolutionized the energy industry but has prompted some environmental & health concerns.
- It can take up to 7 million gallons to frack a single well, and at least 30 percent of that water is lost forever. Because such huge amounts of water have to be used and transported, this comes at a significant environmental cost. Large trucks must move this from point A to point B, therefore resources such as gas must be used and of course the emissions and air pollution that comes with. There is no mandate on disclosing what chemicals are included in the mixture that gets pumped into the drilled hole either, so potentially we could be inserting carcinogenic chemicals into the air unknowingly. The industry suggests pollution incidents are results of bad practice, rather than inherent to the process. However, many studies are funded by mining & oil companies or by environmental groups, so this can make them appear unreliable, at times.
- We have seen cases where uranium, radium, radon, and thorium (included in the chemical mixtures) have been dislodged. This brings up the concern about levels of radioactivity in the wastewater after fracking. Recycling this wastewater is/was a temporary solution, but unfortunately is not a permanent one. In other cases, no elevated radiation levels were found.
- Seismicity is another potential issue. Hydraulic fracturing, as part of its process, creates micro seismic events. These are too small to be detected without sensitive instruments. There have been a few instances of tremors and even earthquakes triggered due to the process. These were enough to be felt by people. Several were linked to fracking (including a 4.0 magnitude), and the U.S. Geological Survey has stated “that there is no guarantee that larger quakes will not occur.” Frequency of quakes has also been increasing, and concerns are rising over whether or not certain underground lines/structures could withstand these earthquakes.
- Some argue the process of fracking causes distraction from researching renewable energy & its resources. As stated earlier, fracking accounts for a good percentage of overall U.S. gas & oil production and environmentalists say that this stops from investing in new renewable sources and continues our reliance on fossil fuels.
- I won’t go into much detail about health effects, because of its controversial nature, but there is concern about possible long and short term health effects of the contamination (air/water). Specifically, concerns of infertility, birth defects, and cancer are brought up.
Hydraulic fracturing is currently used in the United States (although Vermont has become the first state to ban it), China, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, and the United Kingdom. A moratorium on fracking is in place in places like Germany and parts of Canada (Quebec) and is currently banned in Tunisia, Bulgaria, and in France.
This is a controversial topic to be discussed and debated for some time. How do to we mate progress with environmental sustainability? If you have questions, like I did, there is great information at Frac Focus, which is the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry. Their website is located here: http://fracfocus.org/welcome
“We have regulations in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent water contamination, mitigate seismic activity and air pollution and we have been successfully regulating for gas and oil drilling for over 50 years.”
--Spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change