Frack, Frack, Frack: What is Fracking and Should it be Banned?

Fracking is defined as “the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc. so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.” It was a process created in the 1860s, but the fracking we know more commonly today was invented by George P. Mitchell. He created a new technique, that took hydraulic fracturing, and combined it with horizontal drilling.

Risks and Concerns

  • Water Pollution

  • Chemical additives are used in the drilling mud, slurries and fluids required for the fracking process. Each well produces millions of gallons of toxic fluid containing not only the added chemicals, but other naturally occurring radioactive material, liquid hydrocarbons, brine water and heavy metals. Fissures created by the fracking process can also create underground pathways for gases, chemicals and radioactive material. Another scenario for contamination to occur is by faulty design or construction of the cement well casings--something that happened in the BP Gulf blowout disaster. Storage of the waste water is currently under the regulatory jurisdiction of states, many of whom have weak to nonexistent policies protecting the environment.

  • Methane pollution & Air pollution

  • Methane is a main component of natural gas and is 25 times more potent in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitoring gas wells in Weld County, Colorado, estimated that 4 percent of the methane produced by these wells is escaping into the atmosphere. NOAA scientists found the Weld County gas wells to be equal to the carbon emissions of 1-3 million cars. In one of my earlier articles we discuss the dangers associated with air pollution. You can check that out here.

  • Soil and Oil Contamination

  • According to journalists at Pro Publica, oil companies reported over 1,000 oil spills in North Dakota, 2011, with many more going unreported, state officials admit. The Associated Press also recently reported that the amount of chemically tainted soil from drilling waste increased nearly 5,100 percent over the past decade, to more than 512,000 tons last year. Steve Tillotson, assistant director of the North Dakota Health Department's waste management division, told reporters that trucks are hauling oilfield waste to facilities "24 hours a day, seven days a week."

  • Fracking-induced earthquakes

  • Earthquakes constitute another problem associated with deep-well oil and gas drilling. Scientists refer to the earthquakes caused by the injection of fracking wastewater underground as "induced seismic events." Although most of the earthquakes are small in magnitude (the strongest measured 5.2), their relationship with the storage of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater does little to ease the fears over fossil energy's long list of externalities.

Health Impacts

A 2011 article in the journal, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, examined the potential health impacts of oil and gas drilling in relation to the chemicals used during drilling, fracking, processing,and delivery of natural gas. The paper compiled a list of 632 chemicals (an incomplete list due to trade secrecy exemptions) identified from drilling operations throughout the U.S. Their research found that 75% of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes,and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40–50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations.

Health impacts from fracking are only now being examined by health experts, since such large-scale drilling is a recent phenomenon. Exposure to toxic chemicals even at low levels can cause tremendous harm to humans; the endocrine system is sensitive to chemical exposures measuring in parts-per-billions, or less. Nevertheless, many of the health risks from the toxins used during the fracking process do not express themselves immediately, and require studies looking into long-term health effects

Why Won’t We Ban Fracking?

The main reason American legislators are so opposed to banning fracking is because a ban on fracking would eliminate thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.These workers rely on the oil-and-gas industry for their livelihoods, a ban on fracking would put them all out of jobs and damage the economy without proper precautions.

Speaking of the economy, fracking had greatly benefited it. During much of the fracking boom, the US economy grew and emissions declined. One study found that between 2005 and 2012, fracking created 725,000 jobs in the industry, not counting related supporting jobs. “This has been one of the most dynamic parts of the U.S. economy — you’re talking about millions of jobs,” Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit and founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told CNBC. That’s largely due to natural gas from fracking displacing coal in electricity production. Natural gas emits about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal per unit of energy. It doesn’t have the massive land footprint that open pit mines or mountaintop removal coal mines do. While it has its own pollution problems, burning natural gas doesn’t produce pollutants like ash and mercury, which can pose health and environmental hazards for years.

Alternatives to Fracking

  1. Ground source and air source heat pumps

  2. The first alternative is to heat domestic buildings using ground source or air source heat pumps - in effect, refrigerators running in reverse, to cool the outside and warm the inside. The ground source approach uses the heat energy from the sun that is stored a few metres below ground. Air source systems take heat energy from the atmosphere.

  3. Shallow geothermal heat storage

  4. The second approach also uses heat pumps, but boosted by using underground rocks as a heat store to save up the summer's heat for winter. The latest drilling technology allows boreholes to be sunk vertically and then splay out at an angle, much deeper than for ground source systems but a lot shallower than fracking wells.

  5. Biomethane from waste

  6. The third alternative is biogas, also known as biomethane, for both electricity generation and the gas grid, arising from a number of sustainable and indigenous sources. They all have a far lower carbon footprint than natural gas. Examples are biomethane produced from farm and food waste by anaerobic digestion (AD) and from sewage and landfill waste. One reason for the far lower greenhouse gas emissions of biomethane compared to natural gas is that biogas generated from waste avoids the inevitable greenhouse gas release were the waste left to rot in on the farm or in landfill.


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