The oil and natural gas industries have long been at the center of controversy. While they are vital to current global energy infrastructure, there's no questioning that the fuels and their production processes are some of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.
Compounding this environmental impact is the fact that extracting natural gases and fuels from the ground is no easy task. A number of innovative methods have been developed to get oil and natural gas from the ground – a controversial one being fracking.
Fracking is an entire industry that is rapidly evolving. It has been around since the 1940s, and has been widely used ever since the 1960s. However, within the last several decades in the United States, fracking has grown increasingly more common as the country and its fossil fuel producers have moved further toward a goal of energy independence.
What is fracking?
Most people have who have heard about fracking, likely heard about it in some sort of negative light, but why is this process looked upon so poorly? To understand this, first, we need to understand what exactly the process of fracking is.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short, is considered to be an unconventional method for the development and extraction of crude oil and natural gas from the ground. In essence, hydraulic fracturing is a method of drilling wells for fossil fuel extraction, and it's been in use since 1947. However, unlike traditional well-drilling, which involves drilling out a vertical shaft into the ground and then pumping out the contents, hydraulic fracturing works a little differently.
In many parts of the United States and in other oil-rich regions, oil isn't just in a giant pool underground ready to be sucked out. Rather it's spread throughout pores in subsurface rocks and dirt and isn't easily reachable. Fracking is designed to solve this problem.
Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressures through rock formations, usually shale. This high-pressure liquid cracks the shale enough that the oil and gas trapped throughout it is able to be extracted using more traditional pumping methods.
All of that sounds dangerous enough, but there are also are numerous issues involving the fracking fluid and the effects of fracking on the subsurface geology. Once injected into the ground, the fracking fluid cannot be treated or reused, meaning that it essentially becomes hazardous industrial waste. If this hazardous industrial waste is not treated properly, it can contaminate rivers, underground aquifers, or worse, drinking water systems.
In addition to the waste, fracking can cause subsurface geological shifts in the ground, causing settling, small earthquakes, or the release of other trapped gasses underground, such as methane. Fracking also requires the use of huge amounts of freshwater, which must often be transported to the fracking site.
These risks are well-known, and some are mitigated by fracking companies. However, other issues with fracking are that it's still a relatively new process and many of the potential risks are still unknown, including the long-term effects of the fracking chemicals on the local water systems. On top of that, many fracking companies don't have a great track record on proper treatment of all that hazardous waste.
How does fracking work?
With all of the dangers of fracking, understanding how fracking could impact the environment requires a deeper understanding of the exact steps of the process.
One unique aspect of fracking that wasn't touched on in the previous section is that it allows drillers to drill horizontally. This means that one drill site can reach fossil fuels many miles away.
The basic fracking workflow looks something like this:
Drill a wellbore, or hole that is deep enough to reach shale layers underground that are filled with gas or oil. This is typically around 5,000 feet (1.5 km) underground. Once the final depth is reached, the well hole is lined with a steel casing. Once the drill reaches the shale, it turns and begins drilling horizontally along the rock.
A perforating gun then is loaded with explosives. This perforating gun is lowered into the bottom of the well and used to punch out small holes along the horizontal section of the casing. Once the perforating gun has made holes, the actual fracking can begin.
Fracking fluid is injected into the well. Fracking fluid is a mixture of water, sand, and various other drilling chemicals that are shot into the well at high pressures and which then propagates out of the holes made by the perforating gun. This high-pressure fluid cracks open the shale rock while the sand in the fluid fills the gaps, keeping them open. The chemicals used in the fluid help the natural gas or oil seep out of the cracks.
Finally, the natural gas or oil can be extracted out of the newly drilled well and the fracking fluid is recovered. Wells may be capable of producing fossil fuels for several decades, underscoring just how much money can be made with one successful fracking operation.
How fracking is harmful
Fracking has been opposed by a huge number of environmental and local groups for its damage to both the environment and to people's homes.
One of the largest pollutants released from the fracking process is methane, a greenhouse gas. In the U.S. alone, around 13 million metric tons of methane is released annually from natural gas wells alone. Fracking well sites are the source of a number of other air pollutants, which are less common than methane, but arguably more harmful to local populations. Nearly every step of the fracking process releases carcinogens and volatile organic compounds into the air and water, from the trucking and well-site preparation to production to processing and storage. Some of the chemicals involved are benzene, toluene, xylene, hydrogen sulfide, and respirable silica. All of these chemicals can impact respiratory health, and cause nervous system damage, and cancer. It's all part of the deadly cocktail released by fracking activities.
Fracking also utilizes an incredible amount of water. Around 1.5 million gallons are consumed at each well annually, resulting in the use of billions of gallons consumed each year. This water cannot be reused or recycled efficiently after it is contaminated with the variety of fracking chemicals used in the drilling and fracturing process. It thus must be transported to storage areas which then need to be monitored for leaks for years to come.
This water storage is another main concern around fracking. Contamination has and does occur with fracking wells, where the heavy-chemical-rich water leaks into local water supplies. According to the EPA, around 13 spills of fracking fluid contaminated water supplies in 2015.
In most cases, the wastewater from fracking is injected deep underground into wells or stored in large pits. But it is unknown just what the effect of this will be over longer periods of time.
But this isn't all. Fracking can also have long-term effects on the soil and vegetation surrounding the wells. Typically, there are spills around well-sites that impact the salinity of the soil, hindering its ability to support vegetation and animal life for years to come.
Fracking has also been linked to a number of earthquakes. None large enough to do significant damage, but strong enough to be noticed and felt by local populations and to cause some damage to local structures.
All of these downsides have been, for the most part, put to the side in the rush to provide more oil and natural gas to consumers. It's the process of capitalism at play — few care about regional health effects or generational ecological damage if people are making money and products are cheap. However, some also argue that the focus on fracking is preventing money from being spent to research and develop less harmful sources of energy.
New research on the harms of fracking
Although fracking is controversial, the industry persists, largely because it is so profitable. However, because the drilling techniques are relatively new, research is still being conducted around the industry to investigate other potentially negative health effects.
In fact, a recent study found that fracking actually can cause dangerously high radiation levels downwind of sites. The study was conducted by Harvard scientists and found that radiation monitors downwind from fracking sites generally had 7 percent higher than normal background radiation levels.
This is a statistically significant amount of radiation, enough to cause adverse health effects in nearby communities. One of the highest radiation levels the team found was near Marcellus and Utica shale fields in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In these regions, the team found particle radioactivity 40 percent higher than the background levels.