Is Fracking Bad for the Environment? (All You Need to Know!)

Fracking has been used to extract oil and gas in the United States since 1947. In recent years, fracking has received increased attention, especially regarding its environmental impacts.

In the United States, fracking has completed over 1.7 million wells, producing over seven billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The recent boom in fracking helped the United States become the global leader in natural gas and crude oil production.

The following sections will explore if fracking is bad for the environment.

What is Fracking?

Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is a proven drilling technology used to extract oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, or water from shale rock underground.

Fracking refers to how the high-pressure mixture fractures the rock apart. This extraction method releases fossil fuel deposits deep within the earth’s surface.

The concept of fracking dates back to the 1800s, when an “exploding torpedo” was lowered into an oil well and detonated. In the 1940s, these explosives were replaced with high-pressure liquid blasts.

Two major advancements sparked the current fracking boom that emerged in the 21st century. The first was the development of a fracturing fluid called slickwater, a mix of water, sand, and chemicals to make a fluid less viscous.

The second was the pairing of fracking with horizontal drilling. These key improvements and increased investment in fracking, at a time when global fossil fuel prices were skyrocketing, led to its widespread development.

Is Fracking Bad for the Environment?

Several environmental concerns exist regarding the fracking process and the extraction of fossil fuels. Specific issues are associated with hydraulic fracking and resource extraction at large.

In short, fracking is considered to be bad for the environment, but opponents would argue it is better than alternative methods (e.g., coal).

10 Environmental Issues Associated with Hydraulic Fracking Include:

1. Water Supply

Fracking uses billions of gallons of water yearly, and operations are known to deplete water sources.

While the amount of water used in the first 12 months of production is less than half the amount used in coal extraction, after the first 12 months, the amount of water needed for production increases immensely, often exceeding that of coal.

The water consumption associated with fracking reduces the water available to residents, especially in areas with low water availability. If sufficient water is unavailable, it needs to be transported, which has related environmental concerns.

2. Chemical Spills

Fluid leaks and chemical spills can occur throughout the fracking process, including during transportation, mixing and pumping fracturing fluids, and storing and disposing of used fracturing fluid and wastewater. Spills can harm waterways, soil, and ecosystems.

3. Oil and Gas Spills

Wells must be properly constructed to withstand intense temperature and pressure fluctuations. Like any extractive activity, there are risks, and there is a possibility that oil, gas, and fracking fluids could leak. Spills and leaks can lead to drinking water contamination and other related environmental issues.

4. Surface Water and Groundwater Contamination

The chemicals used in fracking are toxic and can contaminate local water supplies on the surface and in the ground. During drilling, chemicals can leak into the groundwater. Underground supplies can also be contained through gas and fracking fluid migration.

Drinking water near fracking sites has proven to contain dangerous levels of methane.

When the water mixture containing chemicals and sand returns to the surface, it can be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. This wastewater needs to be properly disposed of to ensure that it does not contaminate surface or groundwater.

5. Increased Seismicity

Fracking can cause increased seismic activity and even trigger earthquakes. This occurs because fluid is injected at a depth that is sometimes hydraulically connected to faults.

The fluid pressure increases near faults, counteracting the frictional forces on faults. Thus increasing the likelihood of low-magnitude earthquakes. While they are rarely felt on the surface, there are potential hazards.

Environmental issues associated with all oil and gas drilling activities include:

6. Reduced Air Quality

One of the primary pollutants released from fracking is methane, a major greenhouse gas. Fracking-related processes also release nitrogen oxides and organic compounds (e.g., benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and n-hexane) that form smog. Thus reducing the air quality for residents.

Individuals living near extraction sites can experience health problems, such as irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. Local air pollution can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions.

7. Noise

Fracking can cause noise pollution, heavier traffic, and more trucks hauling equipment and wastewater to the site.

8. Landscape Changes

Fracking is an intensive activity that often leads to a drastic change in the physical landscape. Sometimes, it involves deforestation, habitat fragmentation, road construction, and damaged farmland. This leads to ecological distribution and the disruption of wildlife corridors and habitats.

9. Industrialization

Many fracking proposals include the industrialization of rural areas as heavy equipment is needed.

10. Carbon Emissions

The fossil fuels extracted by fracking emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.

How Does Fracking Work?

The process involves drilling into the earth and injecting a mixture of water, sand, chemicals, and other materials at high pressure to create small fractures within shale formations, releasing the oil and gas inside.

The fracture allows the oil and gas to flow out to the head of the well either vertically or horizontally, depending on how it is drilled.

Key steps involved in the fracking process:

  1. A well around two to three kilometers deep is drilled at a fracking site.
  2. Water, chemicals, and sand will be pumped to create minor fractures in the shale rock.
  3. Because shale is porous, it contains many tiny pockets that trap natural gas. When water, chemicals, and sand are pumped in, they open fissures in the rock, connecting the pockets and enabling the shale gas to surface.
  4. Once the gas reaches the surface, it is processed, and the contaminated wastewater is removed for treatment.
  5. After the gas at a fracking site has been extracted, a new well is drilled, and the process begins again from the start.

The process takes an average of three to five days. Once the fracturing operation is complete, the well will produce oil and natural gas for years or even decades.

The oil and natural gas extracted are stored and refined for energy generation and consumption.

Advantages of Fracking

Fracking technology has allowed for the extraction of hard-to-reach oil and gas resources. Access to more oil and gas reserves helps mitigate the exhaustion of resources from conventional extraction methods (e.g., coal).

While fracking is highly controversial, there are some notable advantages, including:

  • Boosted domestic oil production in the United States
  • Driving down gas prices in the United States
  • Can provide energy security to the US and Canada for approximately 100 years
  • Generates electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal
  • Creates jobs
  • Leads to self-sufficiency
  • Reduces coal production

Why is Fracking Controversial?

Fracking has several environmental issues, especially because it uses fossil fuels. Some argue that it distracts energy firms and governments from investing in renewable energy sources.

However, the sector maintains that pollution incidents result from lousy practice rather than a risky technique.

Fracking is controversial because:

  • The number of natural resources needed to complete it
  • The adverse effects it can have on the air and water quality
  • The amount of water needed
  • The overall environmental impacts, risks, and concerns

Proponents of fracking advocate for the economic benefits and the replacement of coal. Opponents of fracking argue that these are outweighed by the environmental impacts, which include contamination, pollution, and seismic activity.

Final Thoughts on Is Fracking Bad for the Environment

Fracking is an unconventional method for extracting oil and gas, which requires significant energy and water.

Overall, fracking is considered bad for the environment but has several economic advantages. However, its future is uncertain, as it is a non-renewable resource and thus finite.

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