© 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.
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.