Hydraulic Fracturing: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By Kaci Jones

What if I told you that the way we get natural gas isn’t safe? What if I told you that scientists are worried about the threat proposed when dealing with the waste fluids produced after extracting natural gas (“What Is” 2014)? But if I told you that more than 60% of the overall wells today are believed to be fractured for the production of natural gas with a method called hydraulic fracturing, you would believe me (O’Meilia). Sara Gosman, the author of Reflecting Risk: Chemical Disclosure and Hydraulic Fracturing in the Georgia Law Review, states that, “by 2020, the United States is predicted to be a net exporter of natural gas and to produce more crude oil than Saudi Arabia.” Knowing what hydraulic fracturing is, what effects it has, and the risk that your supporting is important when talking about fracking. Most people don’t understand what they’re actually supporting. All they know is that they need natural gas daily, but at what cost.

The process of hydraulic fracturing is approved by some, disapproved by others, and unknown by most. Adam R. Murphy, the editor of the Hydraulic Fracturing: Legal Issues and Relevant Laws, states that, “Hydraulic fracturing and related oil and gas production activities have been controversial because of their potential effects on public health and the environment.” Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is one of the main ways we get natural gas today. Fracking is a procedure used to get oil and natural gas from low underground formations of rock (Murphy). This process requires “large volumes of fluid consisting of chemicals, water, and sand into the well to fracture the shake rock that releases the natural gas,” stated by Madelon L. Finkel, who works in the Department of Health at Well Cornell Medical College. “By drilling long horizontal wells thousands of feet below the surface and fracturing the rock multiple times with large volumes of water-based fluid, energy companies are now able to extract substantial amounts of oil and gas from shale and other “unconventional” formations,” stated by Gosman. The process releases the rocks trapped methane, which if released in the air, according to Tohver’s calculations, will release as much as 1600 gigatonnes of substances (Barras). Fracking is a five step process according to a Hearing Before the: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the House of Representatives on the Review of Hydraulic Fracturing Technology and Practices. The first step is to drive a lance to the desired depth (“Review“). Just to put that into perspective that pipe goes down on average 10,000 feet below the surface (“What Goes”). Next thing you do is to remove the lance and inset steel tubing with a narrow aperture all the down to the casing, where the lance stopped. Everything is in place they start the actual process. The process starts by pumping water into the steel pipe, this creates a jet like effect that cuts laterally into the soil (“Review”). After that happens the shot down chemicals and proppants, which are “sand, ceramic pellets” that then holds open the new fractures that were created. Then this is where the process starts become questionable, after the injection is complete the pressure within the rock send back up a fluid known as a “flowback” fluid. This fluid contains the chemicals that were shot down to fracture the rocks under the earth’s surface. This fluid is usually put into tanks and/or underground injection sites (“Hydraulic”). This process doesn’t seem to be harmful in any way but just keep reading, here come the truth about it all.

The information given next maybe harsh; it may be cruel, but it’s what goes on behind the scenes. It’s what the producers of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing want to keep from you. It’s what no one thinks about while buying or using gas. Before the fracking process has started they ship in the materials. The Danger of Fracking states that “each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site.” While you’re drinking a glass of water in the morning just think, it takes 16 to 28 million cups of water, that’s 1 to 8 million gallons of water just to complete one fracking job. Once it is brought to the fracturing site, it is there where the mixture of chemicals and sand is mixed with all that water to create the fracking fluid. “Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used per fracturing” and with that up to 600 different chemicals are used like: lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde. So now let’s do the math, there are around 50,000 gas wells that are active in the United States, 8 million gallons of water being used per fracking, and a well can be fractured 18 times. So that means as of right now just in the U.S. alone 72 trillion gallons of water and 360 billion gallons of chemicals are being used (“What Goes”). That does not include wells that were fracked for the extension of life for a conventional well (Gosman).

At this point in time the mixture is being shot down the steel pipe. Once it reaches the bottom the high pressure of the mixture causes the shake rocks to fracture, and creates a breach in which natural gas flows into the well (“What Goes”). Finkel states that, “The internal pressure of the rock formation also causes a portion of the injected fracking fluids to return to the surface (flowback fluids); these fluids are often stored in a tank or pit before being pumped into trucks for transport to a disposal site.” Also during this process chemicals from the fracking fluid is leached out from the pipes and into near groundwater sources. The groundwater near fracking sites has a chemical concentrations that is 17 times higher than normal groundwater sources. This water goes to nearby cities and town (“What Goes”) and then ends up in people’s yards to be eroded then the land and the animals living on that land are going to be effected as well as the humans who drink it.

At this point many people are probably thinking, “Well they only frack in certain areas and the affect it’s having on the land and animals really does not affect me.” But that’s not the case. The contaminated of ground water is being used for nearby cities and towns, so you could be getting the contaminated water and not know it. As of now “there have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water,” stated by The Dangers of Fracking. Instead of thinking “it won’t affect me”, they should be thinking “what happens when it does”, because only 30 to 50% of the fluid is recovered and guess what? It’s not biodegradable (“What Goes”). The Danger of Fracking also states that, “the waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone.” Catskill Mountainkeeper, the advocate for the Catskills says that hydraulic fracturing has effects whether you are near or distant from the site. It also states that a case that happened in “in Dish, Texas, Mayor Calvin Tillman reports that air pollution from drilling has ruined the quality of life for residents. They report problems with nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, chronic eye and throat irritation and brain disorders.” It just goes to show that nearby towns around fracking sites aren’t the safest to live in.

While hydraulic fracturing is causing polluted run-off water and unsafe hazards into the air, it is also causing more serious disasters that can affects humans in ways no one would think. For example, in January 2011 there was a sequence of earthquakes that hit Oklahoma that were in very close proximity to a fracturing site. Studies were performed and the verdict was that there was a strong correlation between the fracking area and the earthquakes. The correlation was observed was strengthened by the fact that the earthquakes only happened while hydraulic fracturing was happening. When the fracturing site was closed for a 2 day span due to bad weather the earthquakes also stopped then presumed when the fracturing did. It was also said that from the time the hydraulic fracturing began to the first of many earthquakes was only a short 24 hours (Holland). According to the National Wildlife Federation, hydraulic fracturing “contaminates water quality and supply, increases Ozone and smog levels, and destroys and fragments wildlife habitats.” Larry Hyslop, a correspondent from the Elko Daily Free Press, has a stated that he has concerns about the fracking that is currently going on in Elko Country right now. In his article he explains that he is neither a scientist or know much about the topic, but what he does know is that it has come up in other newspapers how fracking is hurting the land. Hyslop states in his article that “The Washington Post reported Pennsylvania drilling for natural gas caused “significant damage” to drinking-water aquifers. The Texas Tribune reported that due to the recent drought, oil and gas companies may run short of needed water for operations in South Texas” along with more related stories. This just goes to show that yes it is affecting the land and the people in areas surrounding fracking sites are also worried about what can potentially happen to the land that they live on because of how loosely fracking is regulated. While the process of fracking is harmful to the land also other things needed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services states that “natural gas development involves the construction of drilling pads, access roads, pipelines, holding ponds, and various other infrastructure projects, fragmentation and soil erosion and sedimentation are primary concerns.” So this just shows that everything that leads up to, during and after fracking is potentially harmful to the land.

Not only are we affected and the land affected by hydraulic fracturing, the animals are too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s state that “exploitation of this shale gas has the potential to harm fish and wildlife resources.” For example, freshwater mussels have been directly affected by fracturing because of the large amounts of water withdrawals. This is more harmful at certain times of the year but it still has the potential to harm aquatic species. It is also stated that along with water withdrawals, the release of contaminants also has the same potential (“Natural”). The National Wildlife Federation states that “there have been reports of flammable methane migrating into local drinking water supplies, and spills of drilling fluids and contaminated water are believed to have killed livestock, fish and other aquatic life in ponds and streams.” Another case where hydraulic fracturing was affecting nearby animals was in Acorn Fork, Kentucky. Here it is believed that hydraulic fracturing fluids have caused a widespread death or distress of their native aquatic species. This area is home to of the federally threatened Blackside dace, this is a small and colorful minnow, because of this fish the area is designated as an Outstanding State Resource Waters by the state of Kentucky. The study that was conducted here was showing that even a small scale sill can damage the wildlife. The results of the study showed that “the water’s pH dropped from 7.5 to 5.6, and stream conductivity increased from 200 to 35,000 microsiemens per centimeter. A low pH number indicates that the creek had become more acidic, and the stream conductivity indicated that there were higher levels of dissolved elements including iron and aluminum,” which is a change in the animal’s environment causing it to be harmful (“News”).

Hydraulic fracturing has several implications for regulating it by the federal and state levels of government, but there happens to be a lot of exemptions for fracking. Also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that they coordinate “closely with other Department of the Interior bureaus, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and other organizations to reduce the effects of shale gas development to our natural resources.” For example, in the Safe Drinking Water Act, SDWA, that has an Underground Injection Control, UIC, requirements, but it just so happens that in doesn’t apply to fracking. The exemption just states that they do not have to fill out a UIC under the SDWA (Murphy), but there is a proposal out there to regulate where the SDWA doesn’t called the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. Antoinette Franke, from Stafford stated in The Free Lance-Star, that “the FRAC Act was introduced in March 2011 in both the House and Senate. The bill would require companies to disclose the chemicals injected underground and eliminate the exemption of hydraulic fracturing operations from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” but the bill has still not been passed yet. Murphy states that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, issued regulations covering organic compound that are emitted from hydraulic fracturing. Also the EPA is currently doing a “study of the potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources” this is going to help us “understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and ground water.” The EPA is also ensuring that if fracking is using diesel fuels that it is being properly permitted and that there will be a safe disposal of wastewater, storm water, and other wastes (“Natural”). Another way that we can help out is bring awareness to Washington D.C. This is a good step because you can then distribute the information gathered and discuss how the Service is going to address the problems. This also where you can discuss the lack of authorities that are put in place to address the onsite concerns (O’Meilia). Other companies like the Railroad Commission are also trying to teach people about the safety of hydraulic fracturing (Press Release). People’s complainants aren’t about the regulations. There are enough regulation to control the problems people have with fracking. It’s that there aren’t enough enforcement to go around on the sites. With the policies that are in place and the enforcement needed to control and regulate it properly, I feel as if more people that are against fracking will convert over.

Hydraulic fracturing is an environmental concern, an economical benefit, and length process. Many people are for and equally against it. The hope that is wanted after this paper is for more people to become educated, not only about what it produces but about the effects it has that are overlooked. Yes, regulation needs to increase and negativity between the two views needs to decrease, but “in the end, hydraulic fracking produces approximately 300,000 barrels of natural gas a day, but at the price of numerous environmental, safety, and health hazards” (“What Goes”).

References:

Barras, Colin. “Fracking Hell.” New Scientist 220.2947 (2013): 42-46. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Apr. 2014

Finkel, Madelon L., Jake Hays, and Adam Law. “Modern Natural Gas Development and Harm To Health: The Need For Proactive Public Health Policies.” ISRN Public Health (2013): 1-5. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.

Gosman, Sara. “Reflecting Risk: Chemical Disclosure And Hydraulic Fracturing.” Georgia Law Review 48.1 (2013): 83-144. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Apr. 2014

“Health Impacts.” Catskill Mountainkeeper. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

Holland, Austin A. “Earthquakes Triggered By Hydraulic Fracturing In South-Central Oklahoma.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 103.3 (2013). 1784-1792. GeoRef. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.

“Hydraulic Fracturing.” The Process of Hydraulic Fracturing. EPA, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

“Hydraulic Fracturing or “Fracking” – National Wildlife Federation.” Hydraulic Fracturing or “Fracking” – National Wildlife Federation. National Wildlife Federation, n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

Hyslop, Larry. “Nature Notes: How Will Fracking Affect Elko County?” Elko Daily Free Press. N.p., 19 Apr. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

“Keep our water clean: Support the FRAC Act; Please support the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act.” Free Lance-Star, The (Fredericksburg, VA) 26 May 2011: NewsBank. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

Murphy, Adam R. Hydraulic Fracturing : Legal Issues And Relevant Laws. New York: Nova Publishers, 2013.eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 4 Apr. 2014.

“Natural Gas Extraction – Hydraulic Fracturing.” Hydraulic Fracturing. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

“News Release.” Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids Likely Harmed Threatened Kentucky Fish Species. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

O’Meilia, Chris. “Summary of Oil and Gas Development, Hydraulic Fracturing and Issues Associated with Conservation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Trust Resources in the Southwest Region.” (2012): 1-8. Fish and Wildlife Services. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

Press Release. R.R. Comm’m of Texas, Railroad Commissioners Adopt One of Nation’s Most Comprehensive Hydraulic Fracturing Chemical Disclosure Requirements. (Dec. 13, 2011). N.p. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.

Review Of Hydraulic Fracturing Technology And Practices [Microform] : Hearing Before The Committee On Science, Space, And Technology, House Of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, Wednesday, May 11, 2011. n.p.: Washington : U.S. G.P.O., 2011., 2011. Government Printing Office Catalog. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

“Natural Gas and Wildlife.” Ecological Services. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. N.p., 15 May. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

“What Goes In & Out of Hydraulic Fracking.” Dangers of Fracking. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.

“What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?” Propublica Journalism in the Public Interest. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

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