A Short Definition
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, is a drilling technique used to extract natural gas or oil from deep underground. Fracking is a controversial practice that has been shown to lead to dangerous and damaging results. Communities’ water sources can be jeopardized by the leak of chemicals used in fracking; companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used; fracking uses an enormous amount of water, which depletes local water supplies and produces toxic wastewater; and recently, earthquakes have been occurring in areas with fracking wells, raising concerns among environmental advocacy groups, scientists, citizens, and more.
What is hydraulic fracturing, exactly?
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is the use of horizontal drilling, underground explosions and injection of water in combination with sand and chemicals to release natural gas from types of rock that make it hard to extract from. Conventional drilling won’t work in these rock formations, so horizontal drilling and fracking were developed to release the gas. The rock is usually but not always shale. Fracking is also used to release oil that is similarly embedded in this type of rock.
“Hydraulic” refers to the use of water. “Fracturing” refers to the breaking of these rock formations to let the gas escape. The fracturing of rock by high-pressure water is done deep underground. After a vertical bore hole is drilled, the drill turns sideways and continues to bore, but now horizontally. The bore is lined with steel and the steel is perforated with a device that sets off lots of relatively small explosions. Now the water and chemical mixture is pumped at high velocity down the well. It shoots out through the holes in the steel casing with enough force to crack the rock. Sand, which is mixed into the water, holds the cracks open when the water is pumped back out. Then the gas can get out of the rock.
The top of the well is lined with cement in order to keep the gas contained and traveling upward for capture. However, cement casings fail often, and when they do, the gas leaks out of the well and into the water table.1 The illustration shows how the well bore goes through the water table, which supplies drinking water to wells.
Horizontal drilling allows the same well to be fracked many times. From a single vertical bore, horizontal drilling can occur in a number of directions, with a separate explosion and water injection along each horizontal bore.
It also allows the bore to extend under the land even when it crosses property lines.Some landowners have refused to sign contracts, but the fracking companies can still frack the rock under their land. This is the result of land ownership being divided into “surface rights” and “mineral rights.” This varies state by state and makes it impossible in some cases for landowners to reject fracking. The documentary Triple Divide includes an interview with a landowner that has lived through this situation.
Water in fracking
The amount of water needed for fracking is enormous; research sources invariably describe it as millions of gallons per well. People who signed agreements early in the fracking boom, around 2005, did not always realize that the fracking companies were going to use their water, or how much, or what the effects on them would be. After fracking, the water is contaminated and cannot be returned to its source or processed by municipal water treatment plants. Part of the reason for this is that naturally occurring radiation underground sometimes gets into the water. Another reason is that it’s a trade secret what chemicals are in the waste water. The water is typically disposed of by storing it underground in unused mines and wells. This practice, which requires high-force injection of the water, is known to cause earthquakes in eight states that are not normally earthquake-prone, including Texas, Kansas, Ohio and Oklahoma.2 On April 21, 2015, the state of Oklahoma officially recognized the wastewater injection practice as the cause of its spike in earthquake frequency and strength in recent years. The New York Times noted that this recognition “amounted to a turnabout for a state government that has long played down the connection between earthquakes and an oil and gas industry that is Oklahoma’s economic linchpin.”3
After it is used for fracking, but before it is taken away by truck, waste water is stored in open containment ponds. A barrier, which is a plastic sheet, lines the pond, but water can leak into the ground anyway. Sometimes the barriers rip (in one documented case, the barrier melted when the pond “water” caught fire). Birds that land on the water are exposed to the chemicals. Workers that clean and remove the barriers are exposed. One worker, Randy Moyer, became very sick, and his story appears in the publication, “Shalefield Stories,” a collection of firsthand accounts of how it is to live near fracking.
In addition, well contamination sometimes forces people to buy bottled water.Sometimes the fracking companies even pay for the water for a while, but they do not admit responsibility.Contamination can come not only from containment pond seepage, but also from failures of the cement casing around the well bore.Another way that water gets contaminated is by the upward movement of water from the fracking area to the water supply, which is always above it.Although some engineers deny that water travels upward in this way, geologists explain it in the documentary Triple Divide.
It is also worth noting that fracking takes place in many different parts of the U.S.According to a 2014 study, “nearly half [of frack wells] (47%)…are in regions with high or extremely high water stress,” and “more than 55% of all U.S. wells are in areas experiencing drought.”4
3Wines, Michael, “Oklahoma Recognizes Role of Drilling in Earthquakes.”nyti.ms (New York Times online). April 21, 2105
4 “Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers,” ceres.org
Chemicals in fracking
The fracking fluid, also called “slick water,” contains chemicals and sand. The chemicals facilitate the gas escape, but only industry insiders know what they are, or how much is being used. This is because the Clean Water Act of 1972 was amended in 2005 to exempt fracking companies from revealing that information. When people who live near fracking report that their drinking water is contaminated, they can test it for chemicals. But when the public is blocked from knowing what chemicals are used in fracking, it is hard to make a case that the frackers are responsible. This happens even when people and animals get sick and die. It is also true that some people have moved away and their symptoms have disappeared, yet frackers continue to withhold their information because government is allowing them to do so. Dr. Dawson Lim, an oncologist, says that “There are over 650 chemical compounds in fracking fluids that may cause cancer in humans. There is NO minimal exposure to these toxins that is safe.”5
If people and fracking companies reach a monetary settlement out of court, or they have allowed fracking on their land (but later regret it), they have to agree not to speak to the media about it. A Pennsylvania woman had multiple well pads around her home; her water started coming out of the tap with different colors on different days. When the water settled, there was a gel on top. She told her story in the publication “Shalefield Stories,” but she also said the gas company told her “I am not allowed to talk about this white water. I’ve never seen my water gel, and when I told the guy from Chesapeake that he paused, and he says, ‘How far down in the jar does it gel?’”6 Even doctors who treat people who live near fracking, and believe their water is contaminated, are under such “gag orders” in Pennsylvania.7 This is true even though the same water making people sick is making livestock sick, and getting into the food supply via milk products. Complaints are many and include cancerous tumors, stomach pain, headaches, respiratory problems and many more. The collection “Shalefield Stories” provides abundant evidence from fracking areas in Pennsylvania, Colorado, West Virginia, Texas and Ohio.
5”Shalefield Stories,” published by Friends of the Harmed, 2014, p.4
6“Shalefield Stories,” p.6
7 Atlantic.com, 3/27/12, “For Pennsylvania’s Doctors, a Gag Rule on Fracking Chemicals.”
Leaks start before the gas even gets out of the well because of the nature of the well itself. Cornell professor and fracking expert Anthony R. Ingraffea explains the leaks this way: “Pressures under the earth, temperature changes, ground movement from the drilling of nearby wells and shrinkage crack and damage the thin layer of brittle cement that is supposed to seal the wells.” He goes on to say that new regulations do not apply to older wells, and that even with new wells, “multiple industry studies show that about 5 percent of all oil and gas wells leak immediately because of integrity issues, with increasing rates of leakage over time. With hundreds of thousands of new wells expected, this problem is neither negligible nor preventable with current technology.”8
The 2010 Documentary Gasland was a major expose of the destructive nature of fracking. In it we saw the now-famous image of a person lighting a fire from the water that poured out of his kitchen tap. This is evidence that methane has leaked into the water table that feeds local people’s wells during fracking. Methane is the major component of natural gas and is a greenhouse gas much more damaging than carbon dioxide. The ubiquitousness of leakage is why natural gas is no longer considered a good option to coal.
Any fossil fuel causes carbon dioxide emissions when burned, and that includes natural gas. At the point of use, natural gas does emit less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels do. But the frequency of leaks makes methane a fuel source no better than coal, and maybe worse. Methane leaks occur during extraction, along the pipeline route, and at compression stations. Many people refer to the benefit of relatively low emissions from burning natural gas, but unless we are including “fugitive leaks” in the whole life cycle of natural gas, we are not looking at useful data. The advantages of gas over coal for home heating “are slim to none,” and “the substitution of natural gas as a transportation fuel actually carries a 10% – 35% risk of increasing emissions.”9
8 Ingraffea, Anthony R., “Gangplank to a Warm Future,” NYT Op-ed, July 27, 2014
9 Oreskes, Naomi, “Wishful Thinking about Natural Gas: Why Fossil Fuels Can’t Solve the Problems Created by Fossil Fuels.” Published on tomdispatch.cm on July 28, 2014
When a natural gas well first produces gas, the gas needs to be tested before it can be channeled into pipes and transported for processing. In this process, it is necessary to light it on fire so it doesn’t escape unburned into the atmosphere. This is a temporary measure taken when a well is first opened up, and a destructive part of the production cycle of a gas well. For people who live near fracking, the flaring of a well sounds like an airplane taking off from their front yard, only it goes on nonstop for days or weeks with a flame that lights up people’s houses at night. The average length of a flare is 2.5 days.10
In fracking fields that produce oil instead of gas, the gas is an unwanted by-product of oil extraction and is simply burned because it is not valuable enough to be captured. Oil drillers burn flares for long periods of time so that the gas does not escape unburned. All flaring results in atmospheric carbon dioxide as a by-product.
In order to frack, companies bring in heavy equipment to carry out the drilling and extraction processes. Truck traffic day and night wears down local roads and creates enormous air and noise pollution. Much of the equipment runs on diesel fuel and is noisy and smelly, and is yet another source of emissions. For example, each well per frack requires 2 – 8 million gallons of water. This equals “200 to 300 tanker truckloads of liquid waste from the well. An eighteen-wheeler weighs up to 80,000 lbs. Day-in, day-out, these trucks destroy roads and bridges, leaving towns to clean up the mess.”11 From site development to rig construction to drilling and production, a frack well requires about 895 – 1,350 truck trips.12
Towns and communities do not genuinely prosper from the presence of fracking. Although there is increased commercial activity and tax revenue, there is also stress on schools, police and hospitals. The sudden influx of transient workers is unwelcome to many. The “boomtown effect” does not deserve to be equated with economic development. Local people suffer when rents increase during the boom, but property values later plummet because the land has been industrialized. Any tourist industry has been ravaged. Farmers may have given up; documented cases include rashes on cattle, abnormal chicks, fish with abnormal scales, and otherwise unexplained deaths of cattle, goats, chickens and horses. Those who could afford to leave may be long gone. When the wells stop producing, the frackers pack up and go somewhere else, taking with them any tax advantages.
There is an increasing body of journalistic and anecdotal evidence that increased crime rates, violence against women and prostitution increase in areas where fracking creates a sudden takeover of the local economy. It also contributes to high divorce rates among transient fracking field workers, increased addiction and drug use.13 The lifestyle in the now-notorious “man-camps” where fracking workers live is damaging for them as well as for the communities they descend upon. It is likely that studies will be forthcoming in the near future to substantiate with data what many already know to be true.14
13 Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything, p. 344.
14 Heinberg, Richard, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future, pp. 97-99.
There are no laws and no limits on emissions from burning fossil fuels. There is no law against flaring or methane leakage. Methane, the principal component of natural gas, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere at a rate cited as 34 times higher than carbon dioxide over 100 years, but over 20 years it is 100 times as bad as carbon dioxide. This is because methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does, which complicates comparison of the two. “From a greenhouse gas perspective, the problem with fracking lies in the huge number of wells being drilled….This represents a huge increase in the potential pathways for methane leakage directly into the atmosphere.”15
In the U.S., gas companies are planning to build new or expanded export facilities around the coastline, which indicates continued reliance on fossil fuels worldwide. In planning to address global energy needs in this way, gas companies are turning away from using their capital to develop renewable energy use. This displacement of renewables will allow continued fugitive emissions as well as emissions during burning of gas at a time when climate change is widely accepted as reality. This acceptance would seem to indicate a need for reductions in emissions rather than the current existing plans.
15 Oreskes, Naomi, “Wishful Thinking about Natural Gas: Why Fossil Fuels Can’t Solve the Problems Created by Fossil Fuels.” Published on tomdispatch.cm on July 28, 2014
Heinberg, Richard, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future. Santa Rosa, CA, Post Carbon Institute, 2013. Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
Hughes, David, “Drill, Baby, Drill,” Post Carbon Institute, 2013. The most comprehensive publicly available analysis to date of the prospects for shale gas and fracked oil in the United States. Explanation of why 100 years of natural gas is a myth.
Ingraffea, Anthony R., “Gangplank to a Warm Future,” New York Times, July 28, 2013. Article explaining why natural gas is not a “bridge” fuel to a clean fuel future, written by a Cornell professor of engineering who has also worked on fracking technology.
Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2014. Naomi Klein is a Canadian prizewinning journalist, author and speaker.
Oreskes, Naomi, “Wishful Thinking About Natural Gas: Why Fossil Fuels Can’t Solve the Problems Created by Fossil Fuels.” www.tomdispatch.com, July 27, 2014. Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.
Peltier, Laurel, “Fracking’s Air Pollution: Disgusting, Toxic and Legal.” Baltimore Fishbowl, Dec. 18, 2014, baltimorefishbowl.com. A reporter’s day trip into sacrifice zones in West Virginia. Contains both photos and videos.
Romm, Joseph J, “Methane Leaks Wipe Out Any Climate Benefit of Fracking, Satellite Observations Confirm.” Climate Progress (thinkprogress.org), October 22, 2014. Joe Romm is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he founded their climate blog, Climate Progress, part of their Think Progress website. He is also a physicist and climate expert.
“Shalefield Stories: Personal and Collected Testimonies.” Environment America. Steel Valley Printers, 2014. More stories at www.pennsylvaniaallianceforcleanwaterandair.wordpress.com/the-list
Triple Divide, directed by J.B. Pribanic. Public Herald, 2013. A documentary examining multiple impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania, including water use, the effects of chemicals on people and livestock, and the frustrations of resisting.