Hydraulic fracturing – known more commonly as “fracking” – is a process for extracting oil or gas from hard rock formations, like shale, where they would normally be too costly or difficult to remove. Once the initial well is drilled, explosives are set off within the wellbore to begin fracturing the rock. Frackers then pump up to anywhere between 100 thousand and 10 million gallons of a fluid composed of water, chemicals, and sand into the well. This fluid expands the cracks in the shale, allowing the gas to flow out of the rock and up to the surface where it is collected. Although fracking is an alternative method of energy production, it is by no means “alternative energy.” Fracking produces the same nonrenewable oil and gas as conventional drilling. On top of this, it’s associated with a long list of environmental hazards.
Fracking allows us to reach oil and natural gas deposits below the Earth’s surface that would not otherwise be accessible. Although fracking is an alternative means to generating energy than the traditional methods of using fossil fuels, it has a long list of environmental hazards associated with it that make it unreliable in the long term. Additionally, fracking still relies on finding oil and natural gas – both non-renewable – sources of energy. If we wish to continue towards becoming a sustainable society, we cannot rely on fracking in the long term.
One major environmental risk associated with fracking is contamination of groundwater resources by methane, hydraulic fracturing fluid or wastewater, or other toxic substances used in the fracking process. Methane specifically, when released into water groundwater, can induce biological reactions, which can turn water brown or orange. In extreme cases, it can even cause water wells to explode. Contaminants can get into groundwater in a number of ways, including leaks of methane or frack fluid from improperly sealed wells, spills of chemically-laced frack fluid or wastewater at the well pad, or inappropriate disposal of drill cuttings, muds, or fluids used or produced during the fracking process. Between 30 and 70 percent of the original frack fluid volume pumped into the ground does not come back out of the well right away.1 Instead, it remains underground posing the risk of groundwater contamination well into the future. With a large proportion of Americans in shale zones relying on groundwater as a source of drinking water, continuing to expand this type of energy production in the long term may cost us one of our most valuable resources—clean drinking water.
Fracking can emit large amounts of methane as a byproduct, which contributes to global warming. Natural gas is mostly methane, and when natural gas is extracted from below the surface, some of it may leak out into the atmosphere. For example, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitoring gas wells in Weld County, Colorado, estimated that 4 percent of the methane produced by wells is escaping into the atmosphere2. For the Weld County gas wells, this is equal to the emissions of between 1 and 3 million cars. A report published by the NRDC also found a number of other pollutants that are often released as a result of fracking at both local and regional levels2. At the local level, diesel emissions, toxics, and silica can be released into the atmosphere during multiple stages of the fracking process, and pose risks to human respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds released during the fracking process contribute to ground level ozone formation, which also has negative heath impacts. With large enough quantities of pollutants being released into the atmosphere, fracking is no better – in terms of climate change impacts – than burning coal to generate energy.
Recently, a link between fracking and earthquakes has also been established. Although the process of fracking itself can cause seismicity, the larger concern comes from the underground injection wells. These wells are drilled very deep into the ground in order to dispose of the wastewater produced as a byproduct of fracking. In Ohio, these injection wells were linked to the cause of a 5.23 magnitude earthquake. Additionally, in Oklahoma, there has been a startling increase in the number of earthquakes. In 2009, the state had 20 earthquakes that registered a magnitude 3.0 or higher, and no quakes measured larger than a 4.0.4 In 2015, there were 890 quakes with magnitudes 3.0 or higher, 30 of which reached magnitudes above 4.04. Fracking – and specifically the deep injection wells associated with it – has caused parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas to experience movements in faults that have not moved for millions of years.