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How it works
Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a controversial technique for extracting oil and gas from deep within the Earth. Fracking has become an important contribution to the United States’ ability to be more energy-independent. However, the actual process of fracking is of great concern to most US citizens who are unsure of its effects on the environment and themselves. As fracking becomes more prevalent and more studies are done on its effects, I expect results will show that the benefits of fracking will greatly outweigh any adverse effects.
Fracking may occur through a natural geological process, by which pressurized fluid increases the amount and degree of fractures in subsurface rock layers. Petroleum and natural gas are forced and trapped into reservoirs within the rock layers. Shale is a type of sedimentary rock that is found deep down in the earth. It contains organic materials such as natural gas, petroleum, water, and other metals such as uranium. Fracking is being used more often as oil and gas companies seek new sources of fossil fuels.
How it works
Fig. 1 depicts the process of induced fracking, injecting rocks with high-pressured liquid. To reach the fuel, workers dig a vertical tunnel into the rock, then dig horizontal tunnels coming off the vertical tunnel. High-pressured liquid, composed of water, sand, and chemicals, is pumped through these tunnels, forcing the underground shale rock to break up. The oil or gas held inside the rocks escapes, gets mixed into the liquid, and is forced into the horizontal tunnels. From there, the whole mixture can be pumped into storage tanks, where the natural gas or oil is separated from the liquid.
Fracking has many advantages. It allows the extraction of fossil fuels that cannot be reached by ordinary drilling techniques, which is important in a world that needs a great deal of fuel. Unlike traditional wells, it does not greatly disturb the surface environment. A single vertical well can reach a great deal of underground shale through its horizontal tunnels. (Blackwell & Manar, 2015)
Innovations in drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled tremendous amounts of natural gas to be extracted from underground shale formations that were long thought to be uneconomical. According to first-ever estimates of broad-scale welfare and distributional implications of fracking presented at a 2014 conference of theBrookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA), fracking has certainly become an economic boom. (Hausman & Kellogg, 2015)
The U.S. fracking revolution has caused natural gas prices to drop 47 percent compared to what the price would have been prior to the fracking revolution in 2013. Table 1, sourced from U.S. Energy Information Administration, shows the steep drop in market pricing in relation to increased fracking production. (Hausman & Kellogg, 2015)
Gas bills have dropped $13 billion per year from 2007 to 2013 as a result of increased fracking, which adds up to $200 per year for gas-consuming households. During that same time period, commercial, industrial, and electric power consumers saw economic gains totaling $74 billion per year from increased fracking. (Hausman & Kellogg, 2015)
The increase in the reduction of natural gas has impacted the trade balance between US and other countries. Natural gas imports reduced by 25 percent between 2007 and 2011.We now no longer have to rely on other countries and can provide energy for our own residents. (Hausman & Kellogg, 2015)
Figure 2 shows how widespread fracking has become in the United States. As of April 2016, 21 states engage in fracking production, with five more beginning soon. New York and Maryland are the only two states with potential natural gas reserves to currently prohibit fracking. Two other states Massachusetts and Vermont also prohibit fracking, but this is a symbolic restriction as neither state has major resources.
Fracking benefits expand beyond the state lines who take part in fracking. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 21st Century Energy Institute study says fracking has meant a job boom even in states that don’t actually have shale deposits, with 1.7 million jobs already created and a total of 3.5 million projected by 2035. (Lydersen, n.d. ).
However, hydraulic fracking is controversial, and there are many criticisms. Opponents claim that industry representatives understate the negative environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing. Fracking requires substantial water use; a single well can require three to seven million gallons of water. For a city which is already facing acute water shortage, fracking can lead to a drought-like situation (Hausman & Kellogg, 2015). In addition, each well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site, disrupting the natural environment.
Sand and chemicals are mixed with water for fracking. The water is supposed to be extracted after use, but some water seeps through the ground towards other water sources like rivers, ponds, and sea (Kukreja, n.d.). Some of the chemicals are harmful to plants, fish, and wildlife, and toxic or carcinogenic to humans. Industry experts contend that chemicals make up an insignificant amount of water-based fracking fluids, that fluids are recaptured when feasible, and that even fluid left in the ground oppose little to no contamination threat to nearby soils and groundwaters. According to the Environmental Working Group, however, small amounts of some of the chemicals could pollute millions of gallons of water (Hyder, 2014). Supporting the argument, a Yale Public Health Analysis in 2017 found that 55 chemicals that may cause cancer were released into the air and water as a result of fracking (Hughes, 2017). Fig. 3 depicts a cross-section of a fracking operation and how the technique can contaminate water supplies (Blackwell & Manar, 2015). .
A cross-section of a fracking operation and how the technique can contaminate water supplies. Geologists contend that fluids left underground in well-built and maintained gas wells that do not directly intrude into existent water wells pose little risk to groundwater stores. Thousands of feet of rock layers typically separate natural aquifers from shale gas deposits below. The density of fracking fluids may also prevent them from percolating through tiny underground fissures thousands of feet into water resources; however, the EPA continues to investigate multiple reports where fracking chemicals may have leeched into groundwater despite such natural obstacles.
The first study in the country to evaluate drinking water before and after the local onset of fracking, in Carroll County, the heart of Ohio’s natural gas boom in fracking, shows that fracking did not contaminate groundwater. Some residential water wells did contain high levels of methane, but researchers found that the contamination came from natural biological sources such as soil bacteria, not leaky gas wells (Sumner, 2014). After more than two years of collecting and testing water samples, the findings conclude that fracking can be done in a way that maintains the integrity of the groundwater.
Map of the United States shows the location of large shale fields and cities and states where drilling for natural gas is banned due to new methods, such as fracking, which may cause air and water pollution (Shale, 2011).
A 2015 report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) links the increasing number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other parts of the nation to the disposal of wastewater produced during oil and gas operations. It was widely speculated that triggered quakes were the result of fracking. But both the USGS and the state of Oklahoma say that fracking is only occasionally the direct cause of induced quakes. The far greater contributor is the injection of wastewater from other oil and gas drilling techniques deep underground. (Than, 2015) There is one area that both sides can agree on. Fracking has resulted in a dramatic decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. The Energy Information Administration graphic, Table 2, illustrates the correlation between the rise in shale gas production and the fall of CO2 emissions for years 2007-2015. Table 2 Source: Energy Information Administration (EIA)
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