The Unsustainability of Fracking
How it works
Over the last ten years, America has experienced an energy revolution. Energy consumption has never been higher and the majority of this consumption is supplied by fossil fuels such as coal and oil or natural gas. In order to compensate the high energy demand, most conventional natural resources in the United States have been exhausted. Therefore, prices of natural gas and other fossil fuels are continuing to rise. In an attempt to increase oil and gas production and lower prices, America and other developed nations are adopting new technologies to extract trapped hydrocarbons deep beneath the Earth’s surface in shale rock.
These rock formations have low porosity and permeability, which was the reason the gas and oil in them were previously viewed as unrecoverable. However, recent advancements in hydraulic fracturing or fracking have made extracting these resources possible and profitable. This process has been around in the United States since the nineteen forty’s, but new technological advancements allow natural gas companies to extract the gas in higher volumes and more efficiently than in the past to meet the high energy demands. These new methods, while exciting, can also bring new potential problems associated with that practice. Fracking is not a sustainable way to obtain natural gas. The fracking method poses a direct threat to drinking water by contaminating it with toxic chemicals. Land management is another controversial impact of Fracking. Lastly, fracking causes more rapid climate change. The United States should proceed with caution in regards to fracking. While this new method is a potential solution to the United States energy crisis, fracking poses too many environmental cons to be the United States main source of energy production.
To understand the environmental impacts of fracking, it is helpful in understanding the exact fracking process. First, a horizontal hole is drilled into the gas bearing layer of the rock several thousands of feet beneath the surface. Next, a fracking fluid is pumped into the hole. On average this fluid contains eight million liters of water per pump, plus thousands of liters of sand and around two-hundred thousand liters of chemicals (Goldstein, B. D., & Bharadwaj, L. 2015,). Once the fluid is pumped into the earth, the mixture penetrates the rock layer creating an innumerable amount of cracks. The sand prevents the cracks from closing again which allows for the natural gas to escape into the well to be collected.
As soon as the gas source is completely drained from the well, the fluid gets pumped back underground and the drill hole is sealed. In some cases, the water fluid is moved and stored in treatment plants. However, regardless of treatment method at least thirty percent of that water gets trapped in the shale rock thousands of feet below the surface (Kondash and Vengosh, 2015). The amount of wastewater alone is extremely concerning because fracking wastewater has leaked from faulty storage wells, been dumped into streams, and has leaked from retention ponds putting drinking water at risk for contamination. Not only can the drinking water be contaminated from the chemical mixture, but as well as any other radioactive materials that are brought up to the surface. The contamination is so severe, that the waste cannot be cleaned, even in a treatment plant. Though this knowledge is relatively widely known, there are cases in the United States where sources have been contaminated due to negligence. One big fear is that no one knows how the water will behave in the future since there have not been any long-term studies on the subject. Contaminating drinking water is just one impact fracking has on the environment.
One of the effects of fracking that must be taken into consideration is land use. The recent boom in energy production has caused an explosive increase in fracking wells across the country. Oil and gas companies have carved new unused land into new access roads, well pads, and other infrastructure to support the drill site. Fracking has turned forests and rural landscapes into industrial zones. One environmental scientist says nearly seven-hundred thousand acres of land have been directly damaged by infrastructure that supports fracking (Goodwin S, & Carlson K, et al, 2012). Since fracking is seen as an energy fix, big corporations disregard the environmental impact and continue to degrade land all over America.
Another risk is the release of greenhouse gases causing rapid climate change. The natural gas recovered from fracking consists largely of methane. In 2014 alone, fracking has released close to five and a half billion pounds of methane. Also, methane classifies as a greenhouse gas that is twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide (Kondash, A., & Vengosh, A., 2015). Overall the burning of natural gas is less harmful to the atmosphere than the burning of coal in the short term. Nonetheless, the effects of fracking on the climate balance are greater overall. Firstly, the fracking process requires a colossal amount of energy. Secondly, the drill holes are exhausted at a much faster rate than those of conventional methods so it is necessary to drill fracking holes much more frequently. Lastly, about three percent of the natural gas or methane is lost in the extraction and escapes into the atmosphere. The release of methane into the atmosphere traps the longwave radiation coming from the earth and reflects it back into the atmosphere and surface causing a positive feedback loop which warms the earth.
All in all, fracking is an environmentally dangerous short-term fix to a long-term problem. While it does reach the high energy demand of Americans, the environmental impacts are too severe. Contaminated drinking water could lead to death and disease from drinking just tap water. The sudden rise in fracking infrastructure has seen many beautiful landscapes be broken down into industrial sites. In a warming climate, the release of methane into the atmosphere speeds up the effects of climate change. To conclude, Fracking is not a sustainable practice in extracting natural gas from the Earth.
- Burton Jr., A. G., Basu, N., Ellis, B. R., Kapo, K. E., Entrekin, S., & Nadelhoffer, K. (2014, July 17). Hydraulic “Fracking: Are surface water impacts an ecological concern? Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 33(8), 1690-1691.
- Goldstein, B. D., & Bharadwaj, L. (2015, February 17). Shale gas development in Canada: what are the potential health effects? CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal. 187 (3):99-100.
- Goodwin S, Carlson K, Douglas C, Knox K. (2012, May 7). Life cycle analysis of water use and intensity of oil and gas recovery in Wattenberg field, Colo. Oil Gas J. 110(5):4859.
- Kondash, A., & Vengosh, A. (2015, September 15). Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing. Environmental Science and Technology Letters, 2(10), 276-280.
- US Energy Inf. Admin. (EIA). 2013. Technically recoverable shale oil and shale gas resources: an assessment of 137 shale formations in 41 countries outside the United States. Full , June, Ind. Stat. Anal., Dep. Energy, Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/analysis/studies/worldshalegas/pdf/fullreport.pdf