What the Frack?

Editors note: Students of Mr. Key have been forced and cajoled into doing major research papers over the last two months.  Here at the Jeffersonian, we will be publishing some of these fine, fine, superfine papers in their entirety.  Enjoy this first in a series..it’s on Fracking (i.e., hydraulic fracturing)

By: Lea G.

CO2 emissions and fossil fuels have been a major concern for the past few decades.  Natural gas has received special attention in the news because of the way that it is mined.  There is great controversy on the subject of hydraulic slick water fracturing or “fracking.”  This method of mining natural gas involves shooting millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals at a high pressure to mine natural gas more efficiently. 

Fracking has its benefits.  It allows natural gas to be mined much more efficiently than ever before with combined methods of drilling.  Because of this efficiency, natural gas prices are descending and this makes natural gas an even more worthy energy and electricity producer.  Fracking companies also create many jobs for all of the work that happens on the drilling site and for communities/areas in which the practice is used.

 A further profit gained from using fracking as the method for which to mine natural gas is that because fracking is so efficient, the U.S. is potentially able to export natural gas overseas and make an even bigger profit.  Another great reason to use fracking is because natural gas is a much cleaner burning fuel that coal will ever be.  Natural gas emits much less CO2 than coal and is helping to reduce overall CO2 emissions. 

However, fracking has major drawbacks.  There is a great concern for the environment particularly air and water poisoning.  Fracking uses many toxic chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens.  These chemicals are leaking into drinking well water and the aquifer.  This is causing many health problems among residents living next to fracking wells.  Chemicals are also getting into springs and poisoning the animals that live in the area as well as destroying wild landscapes. 

Another concern about fracking is that it is causing minor seismic activity.  The fractures that it creates deep underground are suggested to be related to the increased amount of seismic activity in areas near fracking wells.  It is also true that fracking can cause infrastructure damage on roads due to the heavy trucks that transport the equipment, water, and chemicals needed for the fracking process.  One last reason that fracking is something to be worried about is that there is excess methane getting into the atmosphere which is actually helping absorb heat, and nullifies the reduction of curving CO2 emissions.

Although fracking has many benefits, the downsides outweigh the benefits.  The fracking process does create many needed jobs, and a cheap source of energy, but the procedure also causes earthquakes, poisoning, environmental damage, and major water contamination.  However, if fracking were to be refined so that it did not pose such a great risk to humans and the environment, then fracking should be used.  

What is Fracking?

Today, many people believe that the availability of fossil fuels, global climate change, and the cost and efficiency of extracting fossil fuels are major concerns.  Greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, and others in our atmosphere absorb the heat reflected off the surface of the earth, and are a leading cause in the warming of the planet.  Non-renewable carbon-based fuels such as coal, natural gas, petroleum, and diesel release CO2 and other greenhouse gasses when burned, and so the search is on to find a cleaner source of energy.  Natural gas, although still a fossil fuel, does not produce as much carbon dioxide as coal.

Until recently, however, the methods for drilling natural gas did not have as high extraction rates.  In 1998, a new method was introduced which provided a way to drill for natural gas using means that had not been permitted before.  This new method was called hydraulic slick water fracturing, or “fracking.”  Before this, a simple vertical well was used to drill for oil and gas.  Fracking uses the combined methods of vertical and horizontal drilling.  The fracking happens after all of the actual well drilling is complete; a highly pressurized fluid injected into the well creates fractures in the bed rock.  These, in turn, allow the oil and gas to escape easier and in higher quantities from each drilled well.

Fracking is a combination of different drilling techniques.  The vertical well goes through the aquifer, and this is usually proves to be the area where there is a high risk of contamination, so when the drilling companies perform the fracking procedure they are required to inject the fracking fluid through a steel casing.  The vertical well drilling continues through many geological layers that usually include limestone, coal, and sandstone.  The rock waste produced is usually buried on site after the drilling is complete.  One of the main drilling sites for the fracking process drills into the Marcellus shale which is 4,000 to 8,500 feet below the surface.  When the correct depth is reached, the drill is guided by instruments to the “kick off” point, or the arc that the drill creates to begin drilling horizontally through the shale.  Horizontal drilling is done because it gives the well a much bigger area to collect natural gas; the horizontal part of the well is drilled laterally 3,000 to 5,000 feet.  After this, the production casing is inserted into the borehole left by the drill.  Many different casing materials are inserted into the hole before the well is ready to be fracked.  After the casings have been put into place, the fracturing fluid is injected into the well at around 4,200 gallons per minute.  This causes the water to shoot into the shale and create paper thin fractures.  These fractures free the gas allowing it to flow to the surface where it is collected and stored in tanks.

The Satisfactory

Professor Terry Engelder is a leading authority in the mining of the Marcellus Shale and is currently a professor of Geosciences at Penn State.  “Because of Fracking procedures,” Engelder says, “much of the oil and natural gas in the U.S.  that we would not be able to mine is made available to us.” The Marcellus Shale is located primarily under the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia, and is one of the largest shale basins in the U.S.  It is also one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the U.S.  In fact, this shale reserve provides most of the natural gas used in the US today.  The very nature of the fracking procedure gives the well a larger surface area in which the natural gas is collected.  In short, Fracking allows more gas to be collected, with fewer drilling sites because the surface area of the well is much bigger.  Because of this efficiency, much larger quantities can be extracted from fewer wells closer to the point of collection, and fracking companies believe that this has helped lower the costs of electricity and heating homes.  Fracking businesses also believe that while Oil is slowly getting cheaper, natural gas is still much easier to buy.  Fracking proponents state that in 2010, because of fracking in the Marcellus shale, natural gas production has created an $11.2 billion industry in Pennsylvania alone and mainly because of its efficiency.

The industry built around fracking has also created many jobs.  Just since the beginning of drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation in 2008, tens of thousands of jobs have been created and proponents believe that 700,000 job positions are expected to have been made by 2015, only two years from now.  Just in Pennsylvania, 140,000 jobs were reported to have been created in 2010.  Fracking jobs include highly paid manual labor to construct the site, conduct the actual drilling, drive the thousands of trucks which supply the water, chemicals, and other materials in the fracking fluid, and also to regulate and manage the drilling process.  The extraction of natural gas through fracking currently accounts for 1.7% of all American jobs, say proponents, and this is expected to grow.

“Another huge benefit to fracking is that it mines natural gas, which emits less CO2 than coal when burned.  Since natural gas is being used more and more because of the cheap prices, CO2 emissions have gone down in the past 5 years,” Professor Engelder says.  “Currently, CO2 emissions are the lowest they have been since 1992 and the more that natural gas is used instead of coal, the more that CO2 emissions can and will be curved.”  Although natural gas does not produce as much CO2 as coal, it does release methane which escapes before being burned and which actually absorbs heat better than CO2.  Adversaries believe that this  creates a net increase in Global Climate change, but proponents point out that there is much less methane in the atmosphere compared to other particles; and the methane only stays in the atmosphere for 20 years, opposed to CO2 which can  remain in the air for centuries.  In fact proponents say that, this cleaner-burning fuel has started a renewal in the American Energy industry and that natural gas will help the transition from coal to cleaner energy resources that we are bound to use in the future.  A study done by Resources for the Future, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, in 2009, showed low natural gas prices caused by the efficiency of the fracking process, will increase use of natural gas helping to stem America’s dependence on coal, in turn cutting emissions from electricity production in half by 2035.  It is also estimated by fracking companies that if coal were to be replaced entirely with natural gas, the CO2 emission levels would be decreased by 300 million tons.

Proponents say that fracking provides much more natural gas than previously believed to exist.  This is fortunate in the eyes of proponents because, in theory, this causes natural gas prices to drop, allowing the U.S. to become more independent and self-sufficient in regards to energy supplies and may result in exports of natural gas.  With fracking as efficient as natural gas companies believe, it is likely that the U.S. prices for natural gas will remain 60% – 70% cheaper than in other countries.  If natural gas can become a strong export, this could also help boost the US economy.  Not only is it possible for fracking to contribute to the US economy, but companies also believe that local economies are also stimulated; the property owners whose land is being used for fracking get paid royalties for leasing out their land to the drilling companies.  This is on top of the many jobs and associated taxes collected throughout the fracking economy.

Overall, fracking is an efficient way to more thoroughly mine natural gas providing states with this resource with many jobs, and strengthening local economies.  On top of this, natural gas emits less CO2 than coal, and if a full transition is made to natural gas then CO2 emissions are expected to curve and go down.

Now On to the Less-Than-Satisfactory

However, fracking opponents point out that there are major negative impacts left behind in the envionment after all of the drilling is complete.  To make fracking possible, the drilling companies need a fracking fluid.  This mostly consists of water and sand, but there are also highly dangerous chemicals included in the mix which help the drilling process.  During a drilling, between 1 and 7 million gallons of potable water is used, with over 596 chemicals also included in each injection.  And there can be as many as 18 injections at a single well site.  Although the companies are very reluctant to disclose these chemicals, protected as trade secrets, some of the more dangerous chemicals found in fracking fluid are:

  • BETX compounds (benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene) all are known carcinogens, causing symptoms ranging from bone marrow failure, to leukemia.
  • Naphthalene (also a carcinogen)
  • Sulfuric Acid (destroys body tissues)
  • Methanol (causes eye damage)
  • Diesel Fuel (contains BETX compounds)
  • Lead (particularly bad for children’s neurological development)
  • Hydrogen Fluoride (poisonous and highly corrosive)
  • Crystalline Silica (a known carcinogen and a cause of silicosis)
  • Formaldehyde (causes death, lung failure, and reproductive problems)

The above are only ten of some of the more hazardous chemicals found in fracking fluid, but the EPA had identified over 1,000 chemicals that are used in the fracking process.  They are analyzing fluid from 24,925 wells from the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania to determine if even more chemicals are being used.  Since a well can be fracked up to 18 times in its useful life, fracking opponents claim that one drilling site can become so contaminated that it becomes too dangerous to even live near the drilling and collection sites, and upwards of 126 million gallons of potable water can be contaminated per well.

Fracking challengers think that these chemicals would not be such a big problem if they were regulated to correct standards. But under current law, when the fracking fluid is brought up to the surface, most of the waste water filled with all of these toxic chemicals is left in a plastic lined pit next to the drilling site where the water evaporates along with most of the other chemicals, leaving a residue behind.  Residents in areas where drilling has happened have also reported a large amount of water contamination going on around fracking sites.  In 2006, six states documented over 1,000 water contamination incidents that resulted from fracking, while citizens are left with countless other undocumented cases to ponder.

More research is needed, but it is obvious to fracking opponents how and where the leakage is happening during the fracking process.  One of the first stages of the fracking process is drilling the vertical well.  However, the standards and regulations from state to state vary, and fracking challengers feel that most do not have high enough standards to keep the aquifer from contamination during the vertical portion of the well drilling.  A safer drilling standard in many opponent’s eyes is to have a steel and concrete casing to and past the bedrock in which the aquifer is located.  The weak part of the well where the leaking can contaminate drinking water can occur anywhere from the aquifer to the surface.  Because of this, anything that leaks out of the casing above the aquifer will make its way to the aquifer and poison the water.  Some contaminations have been so bad that the people whose wells are contaminated are able to light their water on fire because of all the excess natural gas and other combustable compounds in the water.  So, while fracking might allow natural gas to be mined more efficiently and lower the prices, opponents state that the cost of replacing the clean drinking water supplied by an entire aquifer can hardly be underestimated.  Another worrying aspect of water pollution for fracking detractors is that not only the ground water is contaminated, but springs and rivers in the area are also poisoned; and even though humans may go and buy fresh water, animals and the marine life are forced to drink and live in springs and waterways that are sometimes actually bubbling with these poisons and excess natural gas.  This is causing wildlife die off and affecting endangered species.  Worse in opponents eyes, the water polluted by fracking remains  non-potable, and as water becomes a more scarce resource, 1% of US potable water is being used for fracking!

Not only is the chemically filled waste water getting into the environment, but the use of natural gas produces excess methane and the drilling process emits many hydrocarbons and airborne organic compounds.  Very recently in 2013, Scientists in Colorado have conducted tests that are showing alarming amounts of methane in the air surrounding fracking sites.  Opponents believe that as methane escapes into the atmosphere, climate change is sped up, even if natural gas is causing an overall decrease in CO2 emissions.

Not only are the materials used for fracking natural gas poisoning and polluting the environment, but the transportation that is required to get the materials to the drilling site, and transport waste and product also causes road traffic and a sizable carbon footprint from all the trucks.  Usually, it is trucks that transport the 1 to 7 million gallons of water, not to mention all of the other nasty chemicals used in the fracking process.  These trucks being 80,000 pounds, and because fracking sites are often on the ends of light duty roads, the trucks can cause the road to suffer infrastructure damage among other things.

Opponents have also seen a correlation between fracking and seismic activity.  Splitting apart the shale bed rock releases natural gas effectively, but adversaries believe that when most of the fracking fluid is drawn out of the well, these left over fissures are under great pressure.  This is believed to cause very minor earthquakes and other seismic activity even where there was none before. Ironically enough in the eyes of some opponents, some of this activity is causing structural damage to the same institutions benefiting from the selling of natural gas.  A study done by USGS found a rising number of earthquakes starting in 2001.  The rivals suggest that this increase is related to the surge in shale drilling using fracking.

Out of all of these problems however, one of the worst things in the opponent’s view is that many of the times that fracking is to blame for water poisoning and earthquakes, the Federal government has no jurisdiction over the companies because they were exempted from the Clean Water and the Clean Air Act.  The reason for this is because the fracking sites are not being looked at as a whole, but individually, and as a result of legislation enacted early in the Bush/Cheney administration they are not breaking any rules.  This is because the drilling sites are so small that the federal government releases control of regulations to the state, and states are generally easier for drilling companies to bully.  In Fort Worth, Texas, the emissions from everyday traffic (about 200 tons CO2) was equal to the emissions from the fracking wells and drills.  Moreover, many of these companies are not regulating their drilling sties at all, say certain opponents.  Many detractors suggest that the condensate tanks on a drill site are actually designed to continually leak hydrocarbons and other chemicals directly out into the air! This reduces the amount of processed, polluted water, requiring transport and disposal.  All of the states that allow fracking have different regulations on the subject, but no states require full discloser of processes and chemicals to the land owner of the drilling site.

State Regulations

In Pennsylvania, gas companies have been drilling for a long time.  Almost 1,200 wells have been drilled, all of which have been fracked, multiple times in most cases.  Proponents say that the seat of Towanda in Bradford County is now a town with a booming economy.  The Gas revenues all across Pennsylvania have allowed the taxes of real estate to be lowered 6%, and have also allowed the state to pay off a $5 million debt.  On the other hand, opponents state that because the drilling companies are producing so much money for the state, no stricter regulations that would protect the environment against fracking are on the horizon. 

In New Jersey, the legislature has agreed to pass an all-out right ban on fracking, but the governor still needs to sign for the ban to go into effect.  Although there have not been any fracking accidents in New Jersey yet, and there is no talk of making fracking legal, there has been talk of building pipelines throughout the state to transport natural gas fracked in Pennsylvania to the coast to be traded overseas which, if one of the pipes leaked, could be just as damaging as fracking in the opponents opinion.

In New Mexico, there have been attempts by the BP Company to claim and frack the Lewis shale which is located under New Mexico near Farmington and a small part of Colorado.  Today, there are about 1,500 wells made every year, and almost 95% are fracked.  New Mexico has had fracking since the 1940’s, and from the 1980’s to 2003, fracking challengers say that there have been 7,000 fracking incidents concerning soil, water, and air contaminations.

For the past 4 ½ years, New York has refused to pass a decision about whether to allow fracking or not.  Unemployment in Elmira, NY is 9.3% as proponents are quick to state, and the economy is not as great as in Bradford County, PA.  However, beneath the state is the Marcellus shale with which much fracking for natural gas could be done, and gather the state billions of dollars.

Talk of the fracking industry is also spreading around the world to Europe, Asia, and Australia.  In Germany, the environmental minister does not think that fracking will rise to be one of Europe’s biggest economy factors soon.  There is shale located across Europe but the concerns about it have not been sufficiently solved to be able to let it become wide spread.  While many are trying to make fracking safer, not enough progress has been made to reassure Europe that fracking is safe enough to use. 

Australia is one of the few countries that is producing conventional gas resources on a large scale.  However, their source of shale is mostly off shore and although it is still possible, this makes drilling and fracking much more expensive.  China has also begun to frack, though not on a large scale.  Many areas are still refusing to take the environmental risk that comes with fracking. 



Overall, fracking has many benefits.  It allows natural gas to be mined in a much more efficient manner which lowers gas prices and allows the U.S. to become gas independent and even start to export to other countries.  The huge drilling companies that are fracking in shale have also created a many jobs and new revenue streams.  Natural gas produces much less CO2 than coal does, and the local economies are boosted because of the fracking.

Although more research is required, it seems as though the risks that fracking comes with outweigh the benefits.  The chemicals used in fracking poison water so badly that the water can be lit on fire.  Fracking causes earthquakes, road damage, and on top of all this, it is not even regulated properly.  I think that if fracking were to be regulated properly, if the fluid used for fracking would not use so many known dangerous chemicals, and if they were not exempted from the Clean Water and the Clean Air Act, then fracking should and could be used safely.  Another good thing that would come out of regulating fracking safely is that even more jobs would be created because of it for someone would have to be the regulator.  Fracking is a dangerous process as it is being done today, and we need to improve the process before any more water contamination happens and causes more people, wildlife or landscapes harm.




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