Explainer: What the Frak is Fracking?

Why is fracking in the news all the time?

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a method to get oil or gas out of the ground, particularly in areas where gas reserves were previously considered too difficult to tap. As dependence on foreign oil has become more of a hot-button issue, Americans are learning for the first time that there’s natural gas deep below their backyards. Fracking has impacts on the environment, and there are many unanswered questions about the risks.

So how does fracking work?

Fracking is used when there are many small bubbles of gas trapped in shale rock underground. After a well bore is drilled, a mix of specially engineered fluids is pumped down the shaft at very high pressure. This causes the shale at the bottom to break up, releasing bubbles of gas to freely flow to the surface for capture.

What’s in these “specially engineered fluids”?

Fracking fluids are mostly water - at least 98 percent - but the non-water portion is the cause of a great deal of worry and controversy. Dr. Theo Colborn, a former advisor to the EPA has compiled an extensive list of chemicals used in fracking from publicly available sources, including methanol, naphthalene, petroleum and hydrochloric acid. She found nearly half to be endocrine disruptors, substances that interfere with the body’s hormonal balance. There were also carcinogens and chemicals damaging to the nervous system.

How will we know if they’re harmful?

Although the Energy Policy Act of 2005 amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to release energy companies from the obligation to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, Congress has required continuing disclosure of one substance: diesel. An investigation by Congressional Democrats found drillers have injected millions of gallons of diesel – which has been linked cancer and nerve damage- into wells in 19 states over the past several years, without performing environmental reviews as required.

A subsequent report by the same group details 750 additives used in fracking wells since 2005: “Some of the components used in the hydraulic fracturing products were common and generally harmless, such as salt and citric acid. Some were unexpected, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls. And some were extremely toxic, such as benzene and lead.”

This report concluded from 2005 to 2009, 29 of the chemicals used were ”known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.” Investigators also wrote that the oil and gas companies in some instances could not -- or would not, citing proprietary information -- provide the chemical makeup of the fluids used in all instance.

The Obama Administration has embraced the goal of full disclosure of fracking chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency is gathering data, and last year subpoenaed one well services company, Halliburton. Natural gas companies consider fracking chemicals to be trade secrets, and say the quantity used is so small in proportion to the volume of water that it poses no danger.

What exactly are the risks?

Critics of fracking have a long list of complaints, including potential harms to air, soil, wildlife, and social cohesion. By far the greatest concern is over water. Fracking a single well can require as much as ten million gallons (approximately 200,000 filled bath tubs.) Taking large volumes from nearby streams and lakes can seriously harm ecosystems. There are even more potential problems with “produced water,” the toxic liquid that comes back to the surface after a well has been fracked. Usually, it’s held temporarily in a holding tank or reservoir on site before disposal. In Pennsylvania, there have been leaks and spills of produced water. On its way to the surface, produced water can pick up naturally occurring radioactive material (also known as NORM). A Tufts University hydrologist, Dr. Michel Boufadel, has described several frightening scenarios in which toxic fluids could leak into aquifers and spoil them for many years to come. The New York Times has reported treatment plants receiving fracked water in Pennsylvania did not test toxic wastewater for radioactive material. The treated water was released into rivers that supply drinking water for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Beyond water, the manpower and machinery needed for drilling place strains on roads and other infrastructure. Some homeowners in Pennsylvania have had their water wells spoiled as a result of seismic activity from nearby wells. While not a direct result of the fracking process, it’s the kind of problem that can happen near drill sites.

What are the benefits of fracking?

Natural gas offers significant potential benefits for local economies, energy independence, and the environment. Compared with coal, natural gas produces less greenhouse gases. About half as much, has long been the yardstick by which gas is compared to coal. But new research casts doubt on that: The EPA has revised its own estimate to account for the fact that methane gas may escape into the atmosphere during production. Fracking could also make America more energy-independent by increasing domestic energy reserves. Since the year 2000, the Energy Information Administration has nearly doubled its estimate of natural gas reserves.

By 2020, 20 percent of natural gas used in the U.S. may come from the “unconventional” sources including shale formations. Where there is drilling there are also full hotels and restaurants. A study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute found 57,000 jobs were created in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and $1.7 billion was collected in taxes, as a result of new gas drilling in 2009. Some individual landowners have made small fortunes in leasing, and those whose land produces gas can collect royalties (a minimum 12.5 percent in many states) for years to come.