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The Fracking Debate: Digging Up Trouble?

Have You Ever?

Fossil fuels are used to power up plenty of modern-day devices, but have you ever wondered how we get the oil and gas trapped underground? In the 1860s, Civil War veteran Colonel Edward A. L. Roberts reportedly came up with an idea that would revolutionize that collection process. Taking inspiration from the battlefield, he designed an “exploding torpedo” to be placed in an oil well. Once detonated, the rock would shatter, and bam - oil flow would increase exponentially!

Explanation

Though inelegant, this “exploding torpedo” served as a precursor to the modern extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly called fracking. Instead of relying on explosives, high-pressure water mixtures are used to crack rocks and free up valuable oil and gas. While comparatively much safer, fracking has come under heavy criticism for its adverse environmental effects.

Definition: Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing, best known as fracking, is a technique where a liquid mixture of water, chemicals, and sand is injected at high pressure into rocks. This causes cracks to form in the rocks, releasing gas and oil to the surface where they can then be collected.

How It Works

Before that can happen, a well must first be made. A hole is drilled thousands of feet underground where natural gas and/or oil is trapped. This process is usually done using horizontal drilling, which allows for this drilling to be done at an angle instead of just vertically. Horizontal drilling creates more contact on the rock formation, meaning more gas and oil can be extracted. Steel piping is then placed in the newly drilled hole, and cement is put in the space between the piping and the earth to provide some stability and prevention against water and soil contamination.

Then, a mixture known as fracking fluid is injected at high-pressures into the piping. The specific contents of frac fluid vary, but it is primarily water-based with sand and chemicals added in. The high-pressure fluid causes the new fractures and cracks to form at the target rock, releasing valuable crude oils and natural gases for collection. This used and dirtied wastewater or flowback fluid is usually stored at the site or discarded in underground wells called disposal wells.

Growing Concerns

Though fracking as we know it today has existed for under a century, it’s stirred up a lot of concern. This is mainly because its effects on our environment are both under-researched and incredibly disastrous, yet in places where fracking is heavily used, like the US, the process is not well-regulated. 

Between the set-up, use, and storage of fracking liquid, there are many opportunities for leaks and spills. Of the 151 spills that occurred in the US between 2006 and 2012, the EPA estimated that a potential 7,350 gallons of the waste ended up in our rivers, brooks, and other waters, possibly even leaking into drinking water supplies. Furthermore, fracking isn’t precise: operators can’t fully control where the cracks in the rock occur. If they extend further than intended, they can easily link up with natural and human-made fractures and spill into places like underground aquifers, which provide drinking water - it's already happened to towns and cities in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Texas. This isn’t even considering water waste mismanagement and poor well construction, which is often done to cut costs and maximize profits, nor the air pollution that is inherent to the modern-day process. Though the idea that fracking itself contributes to earthquakes was found by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 2016 to be untrue, USGS did attribute the uptick in US earthquakes from 2009 to disposal wells.

Regulation isn’t keeping pace with all the harm fracking can cause. In the US, there are loopholes in the Safe Water Drinking Act, Clean Air Act, and other such legislation that let these problems persist and worsen. Because parts of the fracking process, such as the exact chemicals a business uses in their fracking fluid, can be guarded as “business secrets,” it’s challenging to research and regulate its full effects on our ecosystems. 

Why Care?

Fracking is extremely profitable, and it’s credited with making the US a global leader in natural gas and crude oil production. However, many nations have either increased regulations and restrictions of fracking, like the UK and Canada, or outright banned it, like France. Supporters of fracking argue that the process, when done correctly, isn’t that dangerous. Most companies, they claim, are fracking correctly - the real danger comes from a few bad ones that are willfully ignoring safety procedures. They argue that if good regulations can be made and enforced, then there would be no cause for concern.

Meanwhile, critics argue that fracking uses too much water, pollutes our air, and degrades our waters. They point out that these are only the problems we know about, and the true harm of fracking is likely much greater than what we’ve currently predicted. All this talk surrounding fracking has detracted from real, well-researched clean energy production methods, and it’s time we gave those the spotlight instead.

Wherever you fall on the debate, it’s important that we protect our planet. Legislation must truly protect people’s health and quality of life. Otherwise, corporations are permitted to trade lives for profit, and we just end up digging ourselves into deeper trouble.

Think Further

  1. Do you think fracking should be more heavily regulated or outlawed? Why?
  2. Why do you think current fracking regulations are so lacking despite the harm fracking has helped cause? 
  3. What are some alternatives to fracking? How do you think they compare against fracking?

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  1. CNBC, “Should The U.S. Ban Fracking?” Jan 5, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-OMydfBGvk. 
  2. Denchak, Melissa. “Fracking 101.” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), April 19, 2019, www.nrdc.org/stories/fracking-101.
  3. Goldman, Matt and Mike Byhoff. “How Fracking Became America’s Money Pit.” Bloomberg Quicktake, Jul 2, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFWHxZpF9rc.
  4. PSAC, “All About Fracking.” Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC), oilandgasinfo.ca. 
  5. USGS, “Hydraulic Fracturing.” United States Geological Survey (USGS), www.usgs.gov/mission-areas/water-resources/science/hydraulic-fracturing?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.