Explaining fracking – and why it’s a cause for concern
By Katy Greco, GLOBUS Correspondent
Fracking. You’ve undoubtedly heard this term (and probably giggled) but what actually is it? Well, porous, low-permeability rocks (like sandstone and shale) act as a kind of chamber for natural gases, oil and other hydrocarbons that can be used for energy. Fracking – AKA hydraulic fracturing – is the technique used to extract these natural gases and fuels from their rock formations. Fracking has been around since the 1940s, although it is only recently (due to technological advancements and depleting alternatives) that hydraulic fracturing has become economically viable. Because the technique is now more cost effective, there has been a shift in the energy sector towards hydraulic fracturing.
But what does fracking actually involve? Well, Ted-Ed have an excellent video explaining the process, but here’s the low down of a typical “frac”:
- First, drill into the ground to create a well around 2-3 kilometres deep
- Then drill horizontally for 1-2 kilometres, following the target rock formation
- Next, use a perforating gun to create small holes in the target rock
- Then pump fracking fluid (water mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals) through the rock at a very high pressure to create cracks (or “fractures”) in the formations
- The sand in the fracking fluid keeps the cracks open so the gas/crude oil can escape the rocks
- The chemicals help dissolve minerals and clear space, compress the water, reduce friction and kill bacteria
- The fracking fluid is pumped out, along with the gases
- The waste fracking fluid is then disposed of in underground pits, collected and used again, or sent to a water treatment facility
That doesn’t sound too bad… Or does it?
Well the first concern is the sheer amount of water used. Depending on the size of the site, a single frac will typically use 2 to 10 million gallons of water. This can put a huge strain on local water supplies – according to OneGreenPlanet, fracking and animal agriculture are two of the biggest contributors to Californian droughts. Even worse, the water can never be properly cleaned and recycled. This is because of all the chemicals added to the fracking fluid, and the process of being injected into the ground at high pressures, which means the water becomes laden with an array of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, salts and radioactive materials. This leads us onto the next issue: disposal.
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, a single bout of fracking fluid may contain enough toxic chemicals to contaminate over 100 billion gallons of drinking water. Indeed, an article in the journal Nature labels the ingredients of fracking fluid as “toxic, carcinogenic or mutagenic”. Because the waste cannot be fully cleaned, it often ends up in disposal pits where, if not adequately contained, the toxic concoction can leach into the ground and ultimately pollute waterways and ecosystems. Indeed, there have been numerous reports of drinking water contamination as a direct result of fracking.
In addition to water contamination, hydraulic fracturing also causes air pollution which has been directly linked to a myriad of health issues such as irritation, respiratory issues, CNS damage and cancer. But what about fracking causes this air pollution? From the diesel exhaust of transportation traffic, machinery and drilling, to the toxic chemicals released from extraction itself, almost every step of the fracking process incurs pollutant emission.
Don’t mind poisonous water and air? What about earthquakes? That’s right, fracking is also associated with increases in seismic activity. Not only does the huge amounts of pressure used to crack rocks induce tremors, but there is also growing concern regarding the effect of fracking fluid disposal pits on the balance of underground pressure – so much so that fracking sites near fault lines often prohibit underground disposal.
Finally, although equally as harmful, is the simple fact that fracking distracts energy companies from researching, investing in, and developing renewable, sustainable energy It’s the same old story: profits before people and economy before the environment – great for making a buck in the short-term, but not so great for the long-term survival of Earth and its inhabitants…
Want to know more about the environmental and health impacts of fracking?
- For an excellent overview see this paper by the Environment America Research & Policy Center
- For more on fracking and air pollution, the NRDC’s issue brief has it all
- For the effects of fracking on drinking water see here
Header by WORKSITE Ltd., via Unsplash