What Is Fracking and Is it Sustainable? Getting Down to the Basics

by | Educational, Sustainable Energy

What is fracking and how has it turned the energy production industry on its head?  

Although the word is occasionally used as a mild expletive, fracking is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into deep, underground rocks and boreholes (narrow shafts bored in the ground, either vertically or horizontally) to fracture them and extract oil or gas.  

The fracking industry has been part of oil and gas production since the 1860s and is today responsible for the majority of natural gas and oil production in the United States. As such, supporters focus on how fracking has given the U.S. more energy independence and has created nearly 10 million jobs for Americans. Fracking is also often touted as the best solution for retrieving less accessible hydrocarbons, which are organic chemical compounds of carbon and hydrogen. 

On the other hand, fracking critics are concerned about its impact on the environment and public health, citing water quality and pollution, greenhouse gas emissions (including methane emissions), and seismicity issues as the bases for their opposition. 

In this guide, we’ll answer the question “What is fracking?” We’ll also explore why this worldwide practice is controversial and how it impacts people and the planet. 

What Is Fracking? How Does It Work? 

Also known as hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracking, and hydrofracturing, fracking is the process of fracturing underground bedrock deep in the Earth to extract oil and natural gas. To do this, pressurized liquid (fracking fluid) is used. 

Hydraulic fracturing begins with a vertical or angled wellbore (drilled hole that aids in the exploration and recovery of natural resources), extending a mile or more deep underground. As the borehole approaches the fossil fuel deposits, horizontal drilling begins. That section of the borehole can reach several thousand feet. 

Steel casings are inserted into the well, and cement is used to fully or partially fill the space between the casing exterior and surrounding rock. Sometimes the casing is pre-perforated, or the drilling crew uses a perforating gun. 

The fracking fluid is pumped at high pressure into the space around the casing, either creating new fractures or expanding existing cracks in the surrounding rock. These rock fractures allow oil or natural gas to flow to the surface. 

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Once workers have completed the fracking process on the natural gas well, the shale rock formation’s internal pressure pushes fluid up through the wellbore to the surface. The fluid, known as “flowback” or “produced water,” may contain the injected chemicals, plus naturally occurring hydrocarbons, radionuclides (a radioactive atom or nucleus), brines, and metals. 

The flowback and produced water are stored on-site, either in tanks or pits. At some point, flowback and produced water are generally disposed of deep underground or recycled in other gas and oil production wells. If it’s possible to treat the flowback and produced water at a wastewater treatment facility, the treated fluid is discharged to surface water. 

What’s in Fracking Fluid? 

Fracking Fluid Illustration of Flow and Processsource

Fracking fluid includes chemical additives and proppants (tiny particles that keep the fractures open). 

According to a 2015 report by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), hydraulic fracturing fluids contain 88% water (by mass), 10% quartz proppant, and less than 1% additives. The report also shows that 428 hydraulic fracking operators across 20 states listed 698 unique chemical ingredients as part of their fracking fluid. Hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydro-treated light petroleum distillates accounted for more than 65% of the additives disclosed and analyzed. 

In more than 93% of those disclosures, water was the base fluid, with reported volumes between 30,000 and 7.2 million gallons of water. 

Only 29% of reporting operators disclosed the source of the water. Most of the information (68%) about the sources didn’t distinguish the water sources as groundwater or surface water, only identifying the sources as “fresh.” 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fracking operators can exclude disclosures of certain chemicals if they consider them trade secrets even though most states with oil and gas production now have rules requiring disclosure of chemical additives. 

What Do We Know About Chemical Additives in Hydraulic Fracking? 

There are several general additive types in fracking fluid. There are acids, which dissolve minerals and help retrieve fossil fuel flow easily. 

Fracking fluids also contain corrosion inhibitors to protect the steel components of the well from damage. In addition, biocides eliminate bacteria, and gelling agents push proppants into fractures in the substrata rock (layers of rock below the surface). 

Between 2005 and 2013, 1,084 EPA-identified chemicals were used in fracking fluid formulas. Commonly used chemical additives include methanol, propargyl alcohol, and ethylene glycol, all considered hazardous to humans. 

How Has Us Fracking Transformed the Global Energy Market? 

In the United States, the fracking boom has made fossil fuels a thriving domestic product once again, with the U.S. oil and gas industry as the leading fossil fuel exporter globally. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), two-thirds of U.S. natural gas and oil production is from hydraulic fracture wells. 

The American oil industry has long understood how to breach rock-encased deposits of fossil fuel such as coal or gas. Mid-19th century production methods used dynamite and nitroglycerin to crack open the rocks that trap fossil fuel deposits deep underground. 

George P. Mitchell, among others, pioneered fracking technology that introduced horizontal wells in geologic formations in 1947. Some 40 years later, his company, Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., began experimenting with hydraulic fracking in horizontal wells. The method helps retrieve natural gas from shale formations across the U.S. 

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Fracking Impact in the United States 

It’s interesting to note that shale rock formations are millions of years old. Over millennia, mud silt, clay, and organic material form as fine-grained sedimentary rock. As the organic material decomposes, natural gas, known as shale gas, becomes trapped in small fissures and spaces within the rock. 

One such deposit, the Marcellus Formation, underlies the Appalachian Basin, and it is thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface.  

The Marcellus Formation begins in upstate New York and is one of many shale formations found globally. It runs south through Pennsylvania into West Virginia, and it extends westward to parts of Ohio. Other shale formations in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming also have fracking wells. 

Two important events have shaped changes in global energy production: the surge in U.S. shale gas and oil production, and the Trump administration’s economic policies that helped shape the country into a global leader in energy production through oil and gas development. 

Why Is Fracking Controversial? 

Fracking Controversy | No Fracking Photosource

Hydraulic fracking has positioned the U.S. as the world leader in oil and gas production. Proponents point to the increased number of jobs in the country’s oil and gas industry, cheaper fuel costs, and some studies that support their claims of fracking’s safety and benefits. 

On the other hand, fracking opponents cite the known health hazards of the various — and often unidentified — chemical additives in fracking fluid. There’s also the common usage of benzene, a component of crude oil and a known carcinogen. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) report that benzene disrupts normal cell function. It can be toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. If benzene impacts bone marrow, the source of red cell production, it can result in anemia. In addition, benzene can change antibody blood levels and lead to white blood cell loss. 

How Does Hydraulic Fracking Impact the Environment? 

Land use, water consumption and contamination, methane emissions, noise pollution, and public health are all affected by fracking. Of those, the most significant risks to human health are water and air pollution. 

Fracking affects surface and groundwater 

In drought-prone areas of the western U.S., water use for hydraulic fracking can be problematic. Although there is no such thing as a typical fracking well, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates water usage to be between 1.5 million and 16 million gallons of water per well. 

Hydraulic fracking operators use underground injection management, wastewater treatment, and reuse in other wells to manage the returned or produced water. Still, accidents happen and rules aren’t always followed. 

As mentioned before, most hydraulic fracking operators cite their water sources as freshwater. That water can be from surface water or groundwater sources, such as aquifers. 

If fracturing fluids and shale formation fluids escape during fracking operations, groundwater can become contaminated. However, upward migration of fracking fluid, even over long periods, appears to be a minimal risk. 

In the United States, the Safe Drinking Water Act protects the drinking water quality. The law focuses on protecting surface and groundwater sources that are or could be used for drinking water. The controversy arises over the water quality and supply and who pays the cost of fracking water, which cannot be returned to freshwater supplies. Nearly half of all fracking operations in the U.S. are in water-stressed areas. 

We tend to think of water as a renewable resource. After all, it rains and there are plenty of rivers and lakes. However, unless fracking fluid uses non-toxic ingredients and subsequent wastewater treatment is carefully managed, clean and safe drinking water will be in short supply. 

Methane leaks and releases are significant drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change 

Climate scientists believe hydraulic fracking drives climate change through well-to-burner emissions, a conclusion hotly contested by fracking supporters. 

Studies show higher methane (CH4) levels because some gas returns to the surface with fracturing fluids. Although flowback treatment varies (which means methane levels at the surface also vary), most studies estimate methane emissions from hydraulic fracking wells are as much as 40% higher than conventional gas wells. 

While methane emissions are a fraction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels, heat from released methane has an 80% greater impact on global warming and climate change through its intense effect on atmospheric warming. 

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Leaks or deliberate venting is the primary cause of those emissions. Emission reductions are possible if employing retrofits and gas capture methods. However, achievements in methane emission reduction would increase production costs. 

Does Fracking Cause Earthquakes? 

Yes, fracking can cause earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) states that hydraulic fracturing “…causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. In addition to natural gas, fracking fluids and formation waters are returned to the surface. These wastewaters are frequently disposed of by injection into deep wells. The injection of wastewater into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt and may cause damage.” 

The wastewater injected deep underground exerts pressure on rock formations, causing human-induced fault shifts. 

Fracking: Is It Worth the Risks? 

Hydraulic fracking in one form or another has boosted natural gas and oil production since the 1860s. In more recent years, improvements in fracking methods have increased productivity by gaining access to formerly inaccessible shale formations. 

The fracking industry and its advocates tout the rise in jobs and America’s energy independence as significant benefits of hydraulic fracturing. 

However, controversy surrounds the practice of hydrofracking. Studies show it increases risks to the environment, employees, and public health. Fracking well workers face exposure to benzene, and the effect of methane, a constituent part of natural gas, on the atmosphere vastly increases global warming and climate change. 

In the drought-stricken West, surface and groundwater resources are becoming increasingly scarce. Fracking consumes millions of gallons of freshwater, placing additional stress on surface and groundwater resources. 

Natural gas and oil are finite resources. Prudence dictates the development of clean energy sources in wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. 

In the long run, a more significant share of renewables and low-carbon sources, such as hydroelectric power, means more countries may become energy self-sufficient. 

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