Fracking has been a hot topic throughout the recent presidential debates, with many people leaving the debates and asking themselves: what is fracking, and why is it so controversial?
The Definition of Fracking
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside (source).
In a nutshell, is the extraction of fossil fuels (coal, crude oil, and natural gas). This process is done by injecting fluid (water, sand, and chemicals) into shale rock. This fluid is injected through a horizontal drilling procedure that is done under high-pressure levels to crack the rock and extract the oil (petroleum) or natural gas.
How Fracking Started: The History
Fracking technology has been around since the 1940s, with new mediums such as purified water and synthetic materials or sand constantly being tested since. A major breakthrough occurred in the 1990s when a new drill, called the steerable drill, launched on the market.
The steerable drill debuted after the establishment of various policies dismissing the issues surrounding burning of oil and coal, plus the prices of coal and oil burning went up, making the financial incentives of extracting these natural gasses very lucrative. This environment led to the opening of unconventional gas reservoirs featuring rocks that were previously left behind from unsuccessful attempts.
The gases found in these rocks were discovered to be methane, “tight gas,” and shale gas which is the most commonly sought out fracking gas today. Today, fracking technology continues to grow and be increasingly valuable to manufacturers despite the numerous environmental threats it poses.
Why Oil Companies Are Fracking
Fracking makes it easier for manufacturers to reach what have traditionally been inaccessible sources of oil and gas. This allows companies to unlock new stores of these valuable natural resources. Some researchers claim that fracking can also reduce CO2 emissions compared to coal, but the science isn’t there. Another reason why fracking is very popular in the U.S. and Canada is its’ impact on jobs – according to the American Petroleum Institute, producing oil from shale reserves by fracking could lead to more than 1 million jobs by 2025.
The Negative Impacts of Fracking
Although fracking does have some economic and convenience benefits, there is more to fracking that what is on the surface. Fracking uses a lot of water. In fact, a study from Duke University found that between 2005-2014, energy companies used around 250 billion gallons of water in the fracking process. During that same period, fracking accounted for 210 billion gallons of wastewater. The main issue here is that the wastewater is contaminated. This contaminated water can then leak into our drinking water and groundwater supplies. It is often stored in injection wells which can in turn lead to earthquakes.
Fracking has also been found to release uncontrolled amounts of methane, a crucial greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Some researchers suggest that this actually makes fracking worse for the environment than burning coal.
To put things into perspective, methane has 72 times the atmospheric heat-trapping abilities as carbon dioxide over the course of twenty years. Speaking of air quality, a number of researchers in 2014 studied air pollution levels in fracking sites around Colorado and discovered an increase in the number of air pollutants directly linked to fracking. These pollutants can lead to serious and/or chronic respiratory and neurological problems. The “1,000 plus chemicals used in fracking” can also cause birth defects and have been linked to cancer.
Fracking Locations & Regulations In The U.S.
In 2005, the government passed the “Energy Policy Act of 2005.” This act, however, only includes fracking when diesel fuels are used to extract oil or natural gas. The EPA claims that these regulations extend to general hydraulic fracturing practices and the agency has encouraged states to set their own fracking guidelines, specifically around drinking water and public health.
Each year in the U.S. alone, about 13,000 fracking wells are drilled. The 2016 map shown below illustrates where these wells are being developed. This map also illustrates what states have bans against fracking. It highlights Maryland and New York but Vermont was actually the first state to fully ban fracking. This is despite European countries like Ireland and France banning the practice nationwide.
Texas is a major source of fracking given its location relative to the Permian Basin. The basin goes from the west of Texas to the east of New Mexico. The Permian Basin was expected to increase its production to 4.8 billion oil barrels each day but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, profit and demand declined. As a result, many people’s jobs and livelihoods are on the line. The fracking industry is set to recover but may take up to five years to do so. The industry’s fate also strongly depends on who the citizens vote to be the next elected president.
All in all, there is a lot of mixed information about fracking and lately, it has found its way into politics. Researchers have mixed answers as to whether fracking is actually a worse alternative to burning coal. Some say it is better, some say it has far worse consequences. Fracking has proven to be bad for the environment – the quicker we switch to renewable energy, the better.