SCIENCE | Environment | GIVING A FRACK
Understanding Hydraulic Fracking
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been around for a while. First used experimentally in 1947, it wasn’t considered commercially successful until the late 1940s or the early 1950s. Then, some six decades later in 2011, the word fracking was listed among the top 10 most tossed-around terms of the times. Fracking was one of the most popular words aggregated by NarrativeTracker, a technology that analyzes trends in English language usage across social media, the Internet, and top print and electronic global media. But who really understands what fracking is—and what is so controversial?
Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals through underground drilling pipes, blasting cracks in the shale and thereby releasing natural gases. According to research conducted by ProPublica, hydraulic fracturing is used in nine of 10 natural gas wells in the United States.
There are multiple potentially problematic issues with fracking, from placing stress on the surface and groundwater and contaminating underground drinking water to possibly causing stable faults to slip and unleashing earthquakes. Additionally, with the release of volatile organic compounds, there may be problematic dangers resulting in hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
The fundamental concern that many scientists have is that the chemicals used in fracturing threaten water supplies when waste fluids are mishandled and spilled on the surface. The chemicals are said to contaminate the aquifers, and it’s well documented that frack fluids migrate. Another key controversy is that some say pipeline leakage is inevitable.
Because there are numerous lawsuits surrounding the likelihood that fracking contaminates groundwater and private wells, homeowners have been forced to sell their property with a long list of disclosures that include “Bring your own water.” While not the only issue, water is certainly a core problem with the fracking process.
To fully understand the chemicals used, the Energy and Commerce Committee released a report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies.
Are there solutions to the murkier side of fracking or ways to mitigate the problems associated with it? Citizens, states, and both federal and private agencies are addressing the issue head on. Some methods are effectively blocking the process and developing safeguards to protect people’s health and the land. The National Resource Defense Council, for one, is working to build a safe and healthier energy future and supports strong safeguards for the production of all energy sources to protect the health of citizens and the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency, as well, recently concluded that hydraulic fracturing may be of concern and is working with states and other key stakeholders to ensure the safety of drinking water, human health, and the environment. It claims to be investigating the scientific understanding of hydraulic fracturing to provide regulatory clarity with respect to existing laws and is using current authorities to enhance health and environmental safeguards.
Ultimately, these concerns are not limited to homeowners and others who live in close proximity to the areas that have been targeted for fracking. While this is a complex problem that scientists, engineers, and other developers are debating at present, the outcome is contingent upon the policies that our legislators and other representatives put into place, and everyone will feel the effect of this governance.
As a citizen, you should get educated from a variety of perspectives. Your active interest, based on your growing understanding of how these issues affect you and your community, will open up this debate and influence the formation of policies for a solution we want, both for our country and for our communities.