Fracking the Earth

© Josh Sager – November 2012

 

Fracking is a very dangerous, yet increasingly common practice in the United States. Hydraulic Fracturing extraction (“fracking”) is a method of breaking up oil shales and forcing them to release the petro-chemicals that are trapped within their strata; this process works with both oil and natural gas, depending upon the location where it is done. While this process is not new, it has come into favor as liquid oil deposits are becoming harder to find and oil corporations are forced to find new places to extract their product.

The general idea behind fracking is to pump massive amounts of fracking chemicals into the earth at high pressures. Through high pressure and chemical reactions, the fracking chemicals fracture the oil shales and cause them to release the oil which is trapped within their structure (Oil shales: imagine a layer cake, where the oil is the icing between layers of cake). Once the oil is released from the shale, it can be extracted, transported and refined into a usable form. The fracking process is basically giving the earth a giant, chemical enema in order to get otherwise un-extractable oil

The first problem with fracking is that the chemicals used to break apart the oil shales are not regulated or even disclosed to the public or the government. Due to their stranglehold on our politicians, the oil companies are able to pump thousands of gallons of undisclosed chemicals into the earth with only the need to assert that these chemicals are harmless. Given the long history of companies that have been willing to lie to the government and public about the toxicity of their products in order to make billions of dollars in profit (Tobacco, pesticides, etc.), this assertion is simply not good enough.

The second problem with fracking is the affect that fracking has upon humans who live in the vicinity of the process. There are far higher rates of cancer, birth defect, and severe degenerative illnesses in areas where fracking has been employed. In many cases, people who live near fracking sites develop a variety of exotic and uncommon respiratory illnesses and chemical exposures that make them severely ill. Without disclosure of just what fracking fluid is, there can be no conclusive causal linking between the process and the severe consequences on the local population, and there can be no accountability for the companies. These companies would deny all responsibility and would have us believe that the people who live in the vicinity of their fracking sites, whether in New York or Tennessee, are just simply unlucky and that this unluckiness just happened to occur when the fracking started.

The third problem with fracking is the affect that it has on the environment. Despite the assertions by the oil companies that fracking fluid is safe, all evidence points to the fact that it is unbelievably toxic to the environment. We don’t know the full scope of the potential for environmental damage by fracking other than the fact that the potential is somewhere between large and unprecedented.

Note to Oil Corporations: Something isn’t safe if it makes peoples’ tap-water explosive.

Among the severe environmental side-effects of fracking here are a few of the more serious:

Explosive Water – In the areas around fracking sites, the groundwater becomes aerated with methane and is highly flammable; in many cases, people have been able to burn their tap water in such areas. Just one example of this explosive water contamination was found in Leroy Township, PA, when groundwater contamination from fracking led to explosive puddles over a large area.

Earthquakes – The shattering of the oil shale layers through fracking can lead to surface earthquakes in the regions surrounding fracking sites. According to a study by the University of Austin, the frequency of earthquakes around certain fracking wells has increased by nearly 800%.

Degradation of Water Quality – The contaminants from fracking seep into the ground-water base and render it unsafe for human consumption as well as or poor quality for farming. Studies have shown that water in the vicinity of fracking facilities is often contaminated with methane, petro-chemicals, and chemicals that are found in fracking fluid. Such contamination is dangerous to humans, animals and many plants that rely on water for survival.

Air Pollution – The fracking process releases gasses (ex. Methane, Volatile Organic Chemicals, etc.) that begin to escape through the land. In several cases, these chemicals have escaped to the surface and have forced people to move in order to avoid poisoning. In addition to the possible toxic effects of these gasses, the sheer volume of methane released during the fracturing process has the potential to lead to increased global warming (in regard to its effects on global warming, methane is over 100x more potent than CO2). According to a recent study by Cornell University, fracking is likely more damaging to the atmosphere than coal.

Regardless of one’s views on environmental protection, the fact remains that petrochemicals are necessary in our society and without them, our economy and transportation infrastructure would grind to a halt; transition away from these energy sources is possible, and will eventually be necessary, but is impossible to achieve quickly. We must protect the environment and not allow the economic interests of a few, albeit a minority which has captured vast portions of our economy, to reign supreme and let them strip mine the country.

Americans, as a society, must weigh the benefits of dangerous extraction methods, such as fracking, against the costs to our environment. With the current debate over the merits of domestic oil production, those in Washington have focused virtually entirely upon the economic impacts of drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The environmental damage from fracking is potentially immense and must be considered as the cost for any potential gains of the energy which is produced. We should not simply look at the benefits of domestic oil production but rather as half of a cost benefit analysis: The benefit of several thousand jobs, at the cost of our environment.

Anybody who is interested in the issue of fracking, as well as the potential damage to our country that it may do, should watch the movie “Gasland” by Joshua Fox–it is an exceptional movie and it gives the real-life stories of those who have been affected by fracking.

8 thoughts on “Fracking the Earth

  1. Josh – while I agree that fracking is a potentially dangerous process for the environment, you are a bit off on your science. First off, it is not completely unknown what types of chemicals are used for fracking – but there is still some small gray area. The vast majority of “fracking fluid” is water, with most of the remainder being made up of some mixture of the following list – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_additives_for_hydraulic_fracturing . Many of these chemicals are harmless, while many others could have potentially negative consequences on the environment. The chemicals fall under two categories – “proppants” used to hold open the hydrolic fracture (basically things that cling to the initial rock fracture created by blasting water into the earth, holding it open and reducing the amount of water needed for future blasts) and chemicals that increase or decrease the viscosity of the overall water-based mixture, depending on the type of soil and the fracking strategy for the region.

    Still, the biggest known danger from fracking isn’t the “chemicals” (everything is a chemical, so stop using that word as a scare tactic) that the companies are pumping into the ground, it’s what they are blasting up out of the lower segments of the earths crust – natural gas and oil. Much of this natural gas and oil does not end up being harvested, it simply gets blasted into a much shallower portion of the earths crust than it would have been otherwise. This is the cause of “explosive tapwater”. Most of these videos are probably from people with private wells – (which are common in rural PA and other areas that have “benefited” from fracking) Explosive tapwater was not unheard of before fracking, but I would venture to guess the frequency of explosive water events has increased with the advent of fracking. Like I said, what you are seeing combust isn’t chemicals that are being pumped into the earth, it’s natural gas itself. This displacement of oil and gas could be potentailly devastating for agriculture. Luckily, if that happens too much, we have a very powerful agro-business lobby that will fight the oil companies. The system of corporatism is saddening, but it doesn’t work 100% against the people.

    Thirdly, anyone who praises the Obama administration for reducing dependence on foreign oil and condemns fracking is a hypocryte. I don’t think you have done this (just assuming because your ideals seem fairly logically consistent).

    Personally, I don’t like it, but then again the environment is a big issue for me. (I’ve explained to you my philosophy that some corporations should pay taxes only on the environmental externalities they create (carbon and non-biodegradable waste) , with the potential to pay no taxes at all, and that the remainder of tax revenue can be covered by increasing rates mostly on the wealthy whose personal income will be greatly bolstered). I still think climate change is a bigger issue, and until hard scientific evidence comes out saying that fracking chemicals are causing severe and permanent damage to the environment (rather than anecdotes from people who live in the area), I will concentrate my emotional energy on the bigger environmental issues – carbon emissions being the largest known. To me, the biggest danger of fracking is that it continues to enable dependence on fossil fuels. Even if it were completely safe (which it isn’t), this would still be a problem.

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    • While I agree with the socio-politial aspect of your comment (particularly the interesting idea of a fight between big-agri and big-oil), you are misunderstanding several key aspects of the actual fracking process.

      1) The explosive water is not due to natural gas leaking into the water, but rather the methane that is released by the fracturing process. When you break apart large amounts of oil-shale, you release huge quantities of methane that vent upward and into the water table. Just as air aerates water (hard water), methane aerates water and creates an explosive mixture of liquid water and tiny methane bubbles. It is these bubbles that make the water explosive, not any petrochemical contamination.

      2) We don’t actually know what constitutes fracking fluid–if you look at the wikipedia list that you sent me, it even admits that “The following is a partial list”. Such ingredient lists have come from external testing on runoff, not chemical manufacturing organizations, and it is akin to guesses about the ingredient list of a cake. Of particular interest in this situation is the fact that fracking companies have been approached by doctors of people who have been harmed by fracking and have given them the ingredient list on condition of them signing a confidentiality agreement.

      3) Fracking not only continues our dependency on oil, but has the potential to absolutely explode global warming: as this study (http://www.sustainablefuture.cornell.edu/news/attachments/Howarth-EtAl-2011.pdf) from Cornell shows, the actual racking process releases so much methane that will increase the atmospheric methane content–as methane can trap around 100X more heat per volume than even CO2, this poses a very dangerous risk. Never mind the effects of the material which is extracted from fracking, the actual process might lead to an acceleration of global warming.

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  2. I understand fracking may not be perfect, but I believe you are giving it an overly bad name for 3 reasons.

    First off, although I am not familiar with every ‘explosive tap water’ case, I know that in many cases the flammable water was caused by naturally occurring methane, and existed before fracking.

    Second, many of the dangers of fracking can be made safe through regulation. The energy industry relies on many unsafe practices, such as nuclear fission and combustion, but by government regulation these processes are deemed safe. The same can be done for fracking.

    Third, the question should not be: is fracking perfect? Obviously it is not. A perfect energy solution would focus entirely on renewables. Unfortunately that is currently impossible, although renewables should be explored further. The question should be: is fracking better than the other option? The other option, coal (which America also possesses in huge quantities) is a far dirtier source of energy. Energy will need to come from somewhere, and I worry if it doesn’t come from shale gas it will come from coal.

    Thus shale gas should be exploited for energy through fracking when properly regulated.

    To anyone interested in this topic I would recommend listening to NPR’s Intelligence Squared debate on the ‘Natural Gas Boom: Doing More Harm Than Good,’ it explores both sides of the issue.

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    • You appear reasonable and to have thought out your positions, but you have based them on incomplete information.

      First of all, the methane aeration of well-water is a well documented and consistant pattern–in areas where fracking occurs, this becomes a problem, even if it had never happened before (this can happen naturally, but it is unbelievably rare in areas where fracking has not occured).

      Secondyly, no amount of regulation can make fracking a safe process–the chemicals involved are too dangerous (ex. Benzene) and there is no reasonable way to prevent contamination. If fracking were restricted to uninhabited land where the expectation was that the land would be ruined, then this would be legitimate.

      As to the necessity of fracking: Once it is extracted and refined, fracking-produced oil and gas is sold on the GLOBAL market, not the American market. In this, it simply doesn’t act as a viable alternative to our energy problem.

      I agree that we can’t completely kick our oil dependency, but fracking is not a viable energy source. In my opinion, nuclear power can substitute for much of our oil use and can become a bridge fuel until a purely green one is found (or refined to viability).

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      • Reply to “The State of the Century”: I am more scared of fracking than I am of nuclear power–a nuclear power plant only causes damage when it goes wrong and produces toxic by-products that can be contained. Fracking causes damage wherever it exists, even if it is going perfectly, and produces toxic by-products that are too far underground to be contained (at least until they begin seeping up and hurting people).

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  3. Great article! I’m sorry to point this out but you used the word “affect” where you should have used the word “effect”. Effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Just trying to be helpful so people aren’t turned off to your message just because of some grammar mistakes.

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  4. I think you are using a very broad brush on fracking. The Williston Basin is an ideal area to use fracking without the pit falls you bring up here. Certainly you have the potential for contamination of water if casing fails or frack water is not disposed of properly but to ban fracking in the Bakken and Three Forks would be cutting our nose off to spite our face. It needs to be considered on a case by case, depositional environment by depositional environment.

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