Fracking: A Ground Breaking Science?

by Jad Hilal

In an age when energy is an extremely valuable resource and the race for alternative energy resources proves to be both economically and politically challenging, a modern method of energy attainment has entered the ring: hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking, at a glance, is an exciting solution to the energy crisis, but with a closer look seems to present problems that may make this method quite terrifying. The simple truth is that fracking poses a possible threat to lives, our ecosystem, and our precious resources. The first step to understanding the significant impact of fracking on the life of every human being is to immerse oneself in the facts.

Fracking is an extensive process; there are many points in the process where error or difficulty can occur. According to the Easter Fuel Corporation, it commences by drilling a shaft 2000-8000 meters deep directly into the earth, then making a 90 degree turn to drill horizontally through the shale rock layer. Pockets of natural gas are contained in this layer; reaching these pockets is the goal of the fracking process. To accomplish the ultimate goal of the dig, the fracking fluid (containing mostly water, sand, and chemicals) is pumped through the newly created vertical shaft and into the rock layer at powerful speeds, “fracturing” portions of the shale layer and dissolving the deposits of natural gas in the process. The fracking fluid is extracted from the earth, and energy is created from the natural gas recovered from the extraction.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted studies regarding the possible dangers of fracking due to the consequences of the drilling and the use of pressurized fluid. The EPA argues that cracks in the lining of the vertically drilled shaft or large fractures stemming from the hydraulically induced fractures in the shale layer could allow the fracking fluid to find its way into our water supply. This is dangerous because fracking fluid is a non-biodegradable solution containing over 700 chemicals, most of which are extremely toxic, including methane (one of the greater culprits), hydrochloric acid, benzene, formic acid, and hundreds more. Furthermore, the remaining fracking fluid is often stored deep underground after the usable material is extracted due to the difficulties involved in disposing of the fluid and the inability to decontaminate it. Stockpiling harmful chemicals underground creates its own slew of potential environmental threats.

Unfortunately, as Boyd argues, the research that the EPA is conducting is taking too much time compared to the rate at which fracking could be affecting society, so researchers at Duke University have more or less taken matters into their own hands. According to a Bloomberg Sustainability report, prior to Duke's studies, drilling companies have claimed that fracking wasn’t hazardous because dangerous levels of methane were not found in the tap water of Texas homes near a drilling site. However, researchers at Duke proved this to be false information. In fact, they found methane levels that were so extremely high, that the researchers and some homeowners showed they were actually able to ignite their tap water.

Aside from this dangerous aspect, it is also argued that the overall environmental impact of fracking is worse than that of coal, the usage of which has been constantly debated due to its harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, an enormous amount of water is required for the process: around two million gallons per operation which is equivalent to the daily water consumption of 65,000 people, according to Philipp Dettmer Information Design. As if this weren't enough, fracking requires a great deal of energy itself and loses around three percent of the recovered natural gas to the atmosphere in the process. Also, as Boyd argues, there is much to be said about the fact that fracking only provides a non-renewable energy source.

So why frac? According to EnergyFromShale, fracking reduces our surface footprint by limiting the amount of land used for conventional drilling, which requires many wells to be drilled over a sizeable distance. However, this idea is countered by the fact that fracking shafts must also be drilled. Boyd argues that the fracking continues for several reasons, one being that the energy demand of our planet is enormous and growing, so any method may seem acceptable. After all, conventional natural resources in the States and Europe are quickly being depleted. Additionally, a solid, trustworthy case against the use of fracking is not as of yet, entirely complete, though the research at Duke seems extremely promising. Finally, fracking is what Boyd describes as a “gold rush situation,” and is becoming a profitable industry. Due to economic gain, drilling won't stop until it absolutely must because it keeps certain wallets thick. Meanwhile, according to data collected by National Public Radio, thousands of environmental regulation violations were found in drilling sites around the country this past year.

Newfoundland’s Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley declared a moratorium on fracking last November, claiming, “Our first consideration is the health and safety of our people.” Perhaps it is time that the United States considered more seriously the potential dangers of fracking, and put more effort and resources but pushing for safer, alternative, and renewable sources of energy.