The Controversial Issue of Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process by which water, sand, and other chemicals are injected into the ground to recover natural gas that is stored inside shale rock. Fracking is a relatively new and booming industry in the United States; gas production from shale rock in the U.S. has risen fivefold between the years of 2006 and 2010. [1] However, such a fast-growing industry is difficult to regulate, which brings about many concerns regarding the industry’s effect on the environment.

Most opponents of fracking cite the numerous environmental and health impacts that are presumably linked with the extraction process. Contamination of groundwater is a primary concern, as most shale deposits are located near aquifers. [2] Farmers located near drilling areas have been reporting deaths of livestock, placing the blame on water contamination caused by fracking. [3] An award-winning documentary entitled GASLAND depicts this and other health hazards that the industry is claimed to have caused. The trailer for GASLAND is shown below, which includes a clip illustrating how a resident’s tap water has become flammable due to contamination.

 

Advocates of fracking highlight the process as important to the energy security of the United States and the world. [1] Several land owners are also content with receiving loyalties that drilling companies pay out for using their land. [4] Along with this, scientists and researchers are working to discover exactly how fracking impacts the environment, if at all. A study led by UT Austin’s Charles Groat reports that the fracking process itself isn’t directly causing contamination, but rather surface operations such as storage and disposal could be to blame. As such, the independent researchers recommend that fracking does not need regulation, but existing regulations regarding drilling should instead be enforced. [5]

Hydraulic fracturing has truly inspired a heated debate among US citizens. A Quinnipiac poll has reported that 45% of New York residents oppose fracking while 44% are in favor of it. [4] I personally believe that as time moves on, this relatively new industrial process will eventually be fully understood, allowing for the proper regulations to be put into place that ensures the safety of the surrounding environment. This will only happen with more scientific studies, such as the report that the EPA plans to release this year which describes the effects of fracking on drinking water. [5] Until then, however, the debate on fracking’s environmental impacts will continue to be an important issue throughout the dawn of this new industry.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/16/shale-gas-regulations-scientists-us

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/20/shale-gas-fracking-question-answer

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/study-fracking-chemicals-killing-neutering-farm-animals-pets-2012-2

[4] http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-fracking-ny-20120219,0,2843440.story?track=lat-email-topofthetimes-February192012

[5] http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/02/mixed-verdict-on-fracking.html?ref=hp

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Controversial Issue of Hydraulic Fracturing

  1. danielnoll

    Three years ago I didn’t know anything about fracking, and I still don’t know how I’m supposed to spell it. What I’ve learned though led me to react to you post with these two observations:

    1) Hydraulic fracturing isn’t actually a new phenomenon. The first frack well was drilled in 1949 by Stanolind Oil and since then there have been over 2.5 million frack jobs done worldwide. It’s the combination of horizontal drilling and fracking and their application to shale exploration that has led to its increased use in recent years for natural gas extraction. My point is that I don’t think time will lead to better public understanding or acceptance of fracking. Which leads me to observation 2.

    2) In the recent UT Energy Poll, which surveys over 3,000 people nation-wide on a variety of energy topics, over 67 percent of respondents identify themselves as not very knowledge about energy. That’s a lot. So I think in general people don’t understand the industry and don’t really want to. There are a lot of negative perceptions of fossil energy due to environmental concerns and I think that a bias against the industry as a whole (vis-a-vis climate change) has spillovers that effect opinions of fracking.

    In sum, educating people through independent studies that are well communicated to the public is key, but not enough to change public opinion. Eventually people will learn to accept fracking (but not love it), since it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

  2. jucarosan

    Almost as Daniel, just until I came to the U.S. to do my masters I started to learn about hydraulic fracturing, the technique, that as Daniel mention, is not new, but its proliferation and enormous capabilities gave U.S. an enormous energy source that was thought to be scare in the 80’s. This change and its widely spread made that it has become part of the news not only nationally but internationally, with its own supporters and detractors.

    Supporters, based their arguments around the possibility of not depend on foreign producers for the consumption of natural gas and that it, natural gas, is cleaner-burning than coal or oil. Its combustion emits significantly lower levels of CO2 and SO2 than does of coal or oil [1].

    Detractors on the other hand, push their arguments through some potential environmental concerns that are the result of hydraulic fracturing. Additionally to the one you included, first I will mention that fracking requires large amounts of water. Therefore, in some areas of the country, significant use of water for fracking activities may affect the availability of water for other uses, and even can affect aquatic habitats. However, some companies have start working on recycling hydraulic fluids, resulting in minor uses of water. Second, fracking fluid is a hazardous liquid in huge proportions, as it contains dissolved chemicals and other contaminants that require treatment before disposal or reuse. Its mismanagement could result on it being released by spills, leaks, faulty well construction, or other exposure pathways, therefore contaminating surrounding areas, or water bodies as you describe initially [2].

    Those two and the ones you describe, would make that people could be part more of the detractors force than from the supporters. However, I believe that no matter the complexities it inherit, hydraulic fracturing would make its way through and will eventually overpass its own problems to stay in the U.S. and in the world as one of the leading techniques to diminish our consumption of coal.

    Source:
    [1] http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/about_shale_gas.cfm

  3. As Daniel noted, fracking is not a new phenomenon. However, due to its application to shale gas exploration and drilling, public interest in and awareness of the situation has increased drastically in recent years. Currently, roughly 90 percent of wells in the U.S. are fracked, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission [1]. Thus, this increased public scrutiny is working to pressure oil and gas companies to take steps towards improving the process and reducing environmental impact.

    For example, the Huffington Post reported that “…during a keynote lunch speech at the conference presented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Halliburton Co. CEO Dave Lesar talked about addressing public concerns about hydraulic fracturing… He raised a container of Halliburton’s new fracking fluid made from materials sourced from the food industry, then called up a fellow executive to demonstrate how safe it was by drinking it, according to two attendees” [1]. Some have praised this as a demonstration, while others have denounced it as a stunt. Furthermore, this new technology, labeled “CleanStim,” is still in field trial stage. But one clear takeaway was that “it was a good sign that Halliburton and others have introduced fracking fluids that they say are safer for the environment for reasons such as using biodegradable ingredients or allowing for less water use.”

    Thus, I believe that under increased public scrutiny, oil and gas companies will be forced to innovate, introduce new technologies, and rethink the hydraulic fracking process. Hopefully, with time and proven results, public opinion of fracking will slowly improve as well.

    Sources:
    [1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/22/halliburton-executive-drinks-fracking-fluid_n_933621.html

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