Friday, February 21, 2014

Hydraulic Fracking and the Environment

Hydraulic fracking or “fracking” as it is more commonly known is on the rise throughout not only America but the world.  This process is a method used for the extraction of oil by use of drilling and injecting a fluid into deep underground shale formations to build up pressure to eject the petroleum product out.  This process has shown great promise in extracting this hard to reach oil, though the environmental impacts are hard to miss.  

The main concern and interest to many environmentalist is if the oil or fracking waste water would contaminate the available underground drinking water.  The wells are drilled anywhere from 1000 to 4000 feet deep and even be drilled horizontally extracting as much oil as possible.  The problem of concern to many is leaky wells that could potentially contaminate thousands of gallons of viable water.  Though precautions are made such as lining the wells with steel pipe as well concrete, skeptics argue that the ever-changing earth crust could crack the lining.  Recent evidence has supported that groundwater contamination is prevalent in areas around these fracked wells.  In Pennsylvania, a Duke University chemical engineer by the name of Robert Jackson has found methane contamination in 115 out of 141 residential drinking water wells (Fischetti, 2013). Homes farther than a mile away show six times less contamination than homes closer to the fracked wells showing very strong evidence of the water supply being contaminated. 
Not only are skeptics worried about the water supply but also evidence in the correlation of fracking in the U.S. with that of the ever-increasing earthquakes being recorded.  Nearly 450 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and larger occurred in the four years from 2010-2013, over 100 per year on average, compared with an average rate of 20 earthquakes per year observed from 1970-2000 (Ellsworth, Robertson, Hook, 2014).  This increasing seismic activity though is disputed since there is no way to directly correlate between the earthquakes and fracking as it could potentially just be a natural occurrence.  Earthquakes may or may not be caused by the fracking but the large amount of wastewater produced from the wells are confirmed and acknowledged.  The EPA is now getting involved and regulating the water going in and out of the fracking wells, citing that disposal of the wastewater at municipal wastewater facilities are not capable of proper disposal.  Much dispute has been placed over this idea due to the new legislation is “killing” jobs, which to some is put above the environment.  The ever debate of the economy against the EPA shows up at these fracking wells as well as in congress.
Now the practice and politics of fracking is spreading throughout the world and Australia is taking on the problem first hand.  Australia is known to be a huge reservoir for these natural oil rich shale formations, though water on the other hand is not so rich and protected.  Australian experts have noted that it the practice is safe but officials are turning to America to look what it has done to our society. 
Fracking in general, as seen has created many jobs and rich amounts of oil, but in all the practice may be harming our environment.  In what respect are we going to sacrifice our valuable drinking water for oil.  In my opinion I would prefer a nice drink of water rather than a gallon of oil.  The research is not strong enough yet to confirm or deny the science behind fracking, though the question of if we are willing to put something as valuable as our own drinking water at risk is question we should all ask ourselves.  


  1. In drier parts of the U.S., there is on-going debate about consumption of water for fracking versus others needs (e.g. farming). Here is a recent op-ed from CA:
    And related to Texas:
    I do question the analysis cited in the Time article-- many industries, including power plants...but *not* fracking, may take up a lot of water, but generally they put it back (after cooling their machinery)--so they are not such big net consumers of water as the article makes out, IMO.

  2. While interviewing at Oregon State, I met with a professor, Dr. Kim Anderson, that flew some of her Ph.D. students to Ohio to place portable air samplers (a technology she developed) near fracking wells to determine if any gases are released. Using these samplers, she can extract them and identify them qualitatively and quantitatively. Should be interesting to see if fracking poses a threat to air quality, as well as water quality.