Mitigating the Risks of Hydraulic Fracking

Hydraulic fracking has been at the forefront of controversy and energy production, but can the risks be mitigated successfully?
Trevor English

Hydraulic fracturing is currently covered in a heat of controversy, surrounded by a battle of politicians and engineers hoping to protect and save America. The natural gas industry has boomed in recent years with the push to make the U.S. energy independent. Through the process of hydraulic fracturing, engineers have devised ways to extract previously inaccessible energy in the earth’s crust. This process has its drawbacks and has fallen under the magnifying glass of government regulators and environmental groups. Particularly, the unresolved issues include the pollution of ground water and the breaking of the earth’s crust under densely populated areas. In this controversy a cloud of misinformation surrounds protests and regulations, causing detrimental solutions to problems that never existed. Some environmental groups continue to push natural gas as a clean energy source for America while also seeking to ban fracking, one of the main ways in which natural gas can be extracted from the earth’s core. The long list of “facts” presented in articles regarding fracking are filled with half-truths and flat out lies, continuously placed at the forefront of both politics and modern society. Once the drawbacks are solved, hydraulic fracturing can continue to bring the United States into the age of energy independence and produce sustainable energy for the world.

The risks of hydraulic fracturing may be high, and many of the processes may be detrimental to the environment, but the industry is doing more good than harm for the United States. The nation’s media likes to project the risks of the industry while also projecting a story about fracking that sells, one that will scare people into making misinformed decisions. What most stories leave out, is that in comparison with other oil and gas (O&G) extraction methods, it tends to be fairly safe and well regulated.

The country’s oil and gas production market is split into two fields, conventional and unconventional production. Conventional O&G is trapped in geological deposits such as sands and limestones that have high porosity and high permeability. Unconventional production, a process that mainly involves fracking, pertains to O&G trapped inside tight shales or sands that have high porosity, but end up with low permeability. The gas becomes harder to extract when it does not flow between the media, caused by the low permeability. Fracking is a method devised for the unconventional oil in gas industry that involves using high pressure water to break up the shale or sands in which the natural gas is located. To be clear, fracking is not the whole process of natural gas production but rather simply the use of high pressure treated water to break up deep geologic formations.A better illustration of the process of fracking can be observed below.

Often times the media uses facts to represent fracking that pertain to the oil and gas industry as a whole, not just fracking. Among the risks of hydraulic fracturing, two main issues are pushed on the public: water pollution and seismic activity. Proponents of the anti-fracking movement push skewed truths on the public about these issues. Mainly, protesters like to flaunt large numbers; numbers like the fact that it takes up to seven million gallons of water to frack a natural gas well and up to 30 percent of that is lost forever. To the average person, this seems monstrous, and it should, because on an individual scale, it is. Focusing in on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, this amount of water can be put into perspective. Pennsylvania uses an estimated 9.5 billion gallons of water daily, which dwarfs the use of 7 million gallons per well. The oil and gas industry in this state use only 20 percent of the states total water. In fact, during a time period to drill almost 3000 wells, the drilling used the same amount of water as the City of Pittsburg in the same timeframe (Rinaldi). It is perspective like this that the main naysayers of fracking wish for the public to forget. There have been many surface spills of chemicals from fracking that have ended up polluting the groundwater. These were accidents, and not based on the normal process of fracking. But still the question remains, is it safe and clean?

According to basic geology, the contamination of groundwater from injected water would be nearly impossible. The way the rock strata is separated in natural gas environments, the fracking fluid would need to fracture thousands of feet of hard rock in order to permeate into freshwater aquifers used for municipal use. In fact, a 2004 study from the EPA found no evidence that chemicals used in hydraulic fracking have contaminated drinking water. One of the most cited cases of fracking fluid pollution into groundwater is that of a Colorado man. Mentioned in countless articles, and even a movie, a man in Colorado was able to light the water from his faucet on fire. This effect was at first, attributed to the nearby fracking wells, causing many to lose their jobs. In fact, Colorado officials later determined that a series of this town’s wells had been drilled into naturally occurring methane pockets in the upper crust. This meant that the effect was not caused by fracking, but rather bad engineering. This finding, however, did not stop the claim from being used in the fight against fracturing.

In an effort to sway the blame back on fracking, many claimed that the fracking industry had not released what chemicals are used in the fluid, so how can anyone be sure? This ends up being a flat-out lie, many large fluid producing companies have released detailed lists of chemicals used in the controversial drilling technique. Texas was actually the first state to enact legislation that requires full disclosure of chemicals used in the process. Although fracking does pollute a supply of water, it is nothing more than normal industry pollution and production. The water, when managed correctly, does not pollute groundwater sources for municipal water use. When properly overseen, perhaps even under the watchful eye of the public, the risk of water pollution from fracking is successfully mitigated down to a manageable amount.

hydraulic fracturing road network fracking[Image Source: Flickr]

 After the wastewater pollution risk is successfully mitigated, fracking opponents claim that the process produces dangerous earthquakes that can harm nearby cities. According to the U.S. Geological Survey fracking does cause earthquakes but, they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. This is backed by the further independent study, indicating that the process of injecting water into subsurface geologic formations does not cause noticeable earthquakes (< 2.5 magnitudes). Most experts in the field agree that there is no way that hydraulic fracturing could produce earthquakes that would become harmful to the surrounding areas. This does not mean the industry is in the clear as far as seismic activity goes.

Fracking leaves drilling companies with millions of gallons of polluted wastewater. This water cannot be integrated back into current supplies, so it must either be disposed of, treated, or reused. The reuse of fracking fluid is growing more popular within the industry, with companies achieving a 70 percent reuse rate within their good production. However, not all wastewater can be reused, and some of it must be disposed of in ways which do not harm the environment. Among the many disposal methods such as retention ponds and industrial treatment, many companies have opted to inject the wastewater deep into the ground and encase it in concrete. This keeps the wastewater from seeping into groundwater, but the process causes some seismic issues. One thing that both sides of the fracking debate agree on is that deep well injection of fracking fluid can cause earthquakes which can be felt and may cause damage. The Dallas Fort Worth area of Texas has been experiencing series of small earthquakes in recent years, growing in frequency and magnitude. The Barnett shale lies under this land mass, which is estimated to contain 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it the largest gas field in the state. These quakes have been linked to disposal wells from the Barnett shale production zone. All of the quakes seen in the DFW area are small in nature (<3.0) although some have reached up to a 3.5 magnitude according to USGS. The focus of scrutiny should then shift off the process of fracking itself to the disposal of its wastewater.

There are many other ways to dispose of fracking wastewater, as mentioned above. If the public were actually concerned with the environment, they should be focusing on improving current fracking wastewater disposal techniques instead of stopping the industry altogether. Only from that point can the environmental risks be mitigated down to zero.

800px-Fracking_the_Bakken_keeping_American_energy_independent[Image Source: Wikimedia]

As the O&G industry has disposed of more and more wastewater through deep good injection, the quakes have grown. With that said, the quakes being felt are still relatively small. In order to cause any significant or noticeable damage, it is estimated that a quake would need to be a 5.4 or higher. There has yet to be studied into whether the process of deep good injection could even cause earthquakes of this magnitude. The main concern placed on the Fracking industry needs to shift to the disposal of wastewater. The industry is currently doing a good job keeping that wastewater from polluting other water sources, it's simply the storage of the water that has become the issue. The process of hydraulic fracking does not cause earthquakes rather as mentioned above, deep well injection can lead to seismic activity.

Hydraulic fracturing is an incredibly broad term and has freed the United States economy from large foreign energy dependence. The benefits of fracking are often not focused on in comparison to the much more interesting story of environmental disaster and danger. The latter makes for a much better headline. Fracking is also not only used for natural gas, it can be used to extract crude oil or any other trapped fluid deep in the earth’s crust.

One of the other benefits of fracking is the use of horizontal drilling. The process of horizontal drilling often goes hand in hand with the use of hydraulic fracking. In essence, it allows for only one main well shaft to be drilled, then once the desired depth is reached, the drill head will drill along the horizontal axis. A small drilling operation with only one rig can now reach what had previously only been accessible through multiple rigs. This brings the price of fossil fuels down which is good for the consumer. Along with the benefits of cheaper fuels and energy, comes the growth the global economy. U.S. President Obama pushed for the expansion of fracking in 2012 when he claimed that it “would create 600,000 jobs for Americans [by 2020]” according to many news sources. The O&G industry has seen a growth like never before in recent years, causing a boom in the economy.

Possibly the biggest advantage the use of fracking has is its ability to produce clean fuel. It is estimated that there is enough natural gas currently accessible through fracking in America alone to last the U.S. the next century. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are mainly used to extract previously inaccessible natural gas. This gas can then be used for anything, in power plants, to fuel cars, to heat the country’s homes. The reason it is preferred over crude is its carbon footprint. It is estimated that if the U.S. switched its entire energy production to natural gas, the country would reduce its carbon footprint by almost 90 percent.

The main issues with the current fracking industry are pollution and seismic activity. Environmentally conscious Americans often fight for the ban of fracking without considering more productive and beneficial solutions. If the media would be more concerned about bettering the country than getting good ratings, the fracking industry would be creating more jobs, and possibly be even safer than it currently is. What the environmentalists fighting for the ban of fracking don’t realize, is that through choke-holding the industry, they are actually hampering innovation. When industries grow, so does the innovation and technology applicable for use in that industry.

Water is one of the humanities most precious resources, and it should be kept clean. With the exception of accidents and spills, the process of hydraulic fracking does not contaminate water reserves and underground aquifers. This is backed by years of study from the EPA and various independent regulating industries (EPA). This risk has been mitigated, the risk of seismic activity still needs to be overcome. As mentioned earlier, fracking itself does not cause earthquakes of any damaging proportions. The potentially dangerous earthquakes occur from deep well injection of wastewater. This process was developed because of the quick growth of the industry. Companies needed a quick efficient way to store large quantities of water, and this was the best way to do so. Currently, this process is the only possibly detrimental activity to the environment and human safety. Even so, it can be solved through the further development of more effective disposal techniques.


The benefits of fracking overshadow the small issues that are currently focused on by anti-fracking groups. With the proof of economic stimulus and promise of energy independence, hydraulic fracturing has a lot to offer the O&G industry. The general public needs to be more concerned with finding the truth, rather than feeding their media addiction. Once the minor problems within the industry are solved, fracking will create a more stable America and even world. While the effects of fracking still have to be studied further, at the present time, fracking promises many solutions to the world's current issues. Through the safe development of engineering solutions and the further study of gas extraction, fracking will become one of America’s most beneficial industries.

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