The Debate Over Hydraulic Fracturing And Its Effects

Invented by Floyd Farris and Joseph B. Clark in 1947, fracking is a stimulation technique used to extract gas and oil from the ground that would otherwise be unreachable by common extraction processes. In recent years, there has been a ‘fracking boom’, especially in the U.S., with the majority of natural gas wells being dried out. Fracking involves fracturing of a rock several hundred metres under the ground and high pressure injection of fracking fluid. This is done by drilling a vertical hole into the ground on the site of the well, before then using the technique of horizontal drilling to enable access to a larger fraction of the gas deposit within the gas bearing rock. Fracking can use of up to 8 million litres of relatively fresh water, around 2 million kilograms of sand and 200,000 litres of mostly unnamed chemicals. The water used in this process acts as the primary carrier fluid, having to use up large quantities of fresh water. The sand is used to prevent the cracks formed in the gas bearing rock from closing, so the gas can continue to escape until the well dries out. The chemicals are used to be the final initiator in the process to push the gas out of the well, injected into the gas bearing rock after the hole has been drilled. Once the gas has quickly been exhausted, they seal the hole along with the remaining fracking fluid that would have just been pumped inside. Some say fracking contaminates drinking water sources, some say cancerous chemicals are found in the air around the sites, but misinformation leads to hastily created conclusions. Much of the controversy surrounding this procedure is caused by neither the advantages or disadvantages outweighing one another. This is due to different economic, political and ethical views on the situation amongst the lack of information and larger amount of misinformation. Even so, how does it weigh up purely scientifically?

Many communities against fracking accuse the process of contaminating water supplies. They say dangerous chemicals related to fracking close to fracking sites have been found in water supplies causing health threats, but the process shouldn’t be to blame. Though fracking does indeed have the potential to pollute, no studies or evidence have shown fracking itself caused this contamination, but was instead due to negligence and improper procedure. These dangers could be managed, but sources have already been contaminated beyond purifying because of this carelessness and incompetence. In theory, this situation should not be happening, but there are multiple causes that must not have been thought through before going ahead with this process: drilling through water bearing rocks without a properly cased borehole to prevent leaks, drilling horizontally within close proximity to water bearing rocks, and not safely storing and containing the water used in the fracking process once the extraction procedure is completed, which would be contaminated with sand and chemicals because of the process already. These are all problems which could be prevented with proper procedure, and yet problems have still arisen. A simple solution is for companies and their workers is to understand the potential risks and preventative measures: don’t drill through or too close to water bearing rocks, make sure the borehole cannot experience leaks, and properly handle the contaminated water used in fracking by letting none of it come in contact with drinking water supplies. Additionally, make sure the contaminated water is disposed of safely or even recycled by being used in another fracking well.

Many types of gas extraction sites do release chemicals that pollute the air, fracking being no exception. Common oil and gas production sites are known for creating harmful air emissions. Studies have shown - with small amounts of samples - chemicals with the potential to cause cancer such as benzene and formaldehyde have been found in the air surrounding fracking sites. A research conducted by David Carpenter from the University at Albany, New York suggests these chemicals were from a worst-case scenario, ‘“We explored air quality at a previously neglected scale near a range of unconventional oil and gas development and production sites that are the focus of community concern,” said Carpenter. He stressed the study highlights the “worst-case concentration” of these substances, not the average exposure.’ Despite this, and similarly to the water contamination point, even if it is worst-case there’s still a possibility it can occur again, and the problem has already emerged in this situation. Hazardous air emissions must be monitored by companies carrying out fracking, otherwise these worst-case scenarios can become commonplace.

Though air pollution can be managed to some degree like water contamination, atmospheric pollution has posed another complication. Similarly to the previous issue, most conventional gas and oil extraction sites have proven to emit greenhouse gasses such as methane, but this time, fracking has proof of being even more dangerous. Greenhouse gasses are gasses that contribute to the greenhouse effect by trapping heat and energy from the sun in the atmosphere, warming the earth’s surface and the air above it. Examples of greenhouse gasses are water vapor, carbon dioxide and most importantly, methane. Methane traps 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and takes up the second largest fraction of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2017 following carbon dioxide, and the largest contributor to methane emissions is from natural gas and petroleum systems. Certain inquiries into the matter by Robert Howarth, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, and Anthony Ingraffea, a civil and environmental engineer, have shown fracking releases 40 to 60 percent more methane than any other common gas extraction methods. Methane is released in the same process water used in fracking is retrieved from; when the water flows back up, so does the methane. The chemical is released into the atmosphere before a capture can be executed - when companies lack the technology. A way to prevent this escape of methane is by using a proven method known as a green completion, enabling capturing of the methane but only by using special equipment to do so, but no action has been taken with this process, ‘Regulators do not require that step [green completion], however, and the market price of methane is less than the cost of capturing it in that way, so drillers have no incentive to do so for economic reasons.’  If companies think economic reasons are more important than reducing methane’s effect on global warming, they shouldn’t be doing fracking in the first place. If companies do adopt this additional procedure as a requirement, fracking in terms of it’s greenhouse gas emissions should be much safer. Although many would think their one company couldn’t make a difference in reducing the release of methane, if everyone were to take on the opposite mindset, this could still make a difference with the atmospheric pollution fracking is said to cause.

Hydraulic fracturing has always been a topic surrounded by controversy, and no argument can be given without being silenced by a contradiction from the opposing side. These harsh debates and opinions can only be traced back to little information given about the process, misunderstandings and poor practice that could create misconceptions about how the procedure truly operates. In the end, hydraulic fracturing as a process is not to blame for all the problems that have been encountered. Instead, negligence, improper site investigations and many company’s unwillingness to spend more money to help create a safer situation are to blame. If companies currently performing hydraulic fracturing are able to prove they have learnt from their past mistakes and misconducts, I believe - if initially the process is monitored - fracking can be safely executed with proper procedure, which is why I am in favour of fracking under those circumstances. If fracking continues to cause health and environmental hazards due to negligence, I see no reason why the use of this process shouldn’t be discontinued in said situation.

16 December 2021
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