It has been hailed by some (mostly the oil lobby) as the future of the energy industry. Others believe it is one more step towards environmental collapse. But what exactly is fracking? “Fracking” is short for “hydraulic fracturing”, which is a method of extracting oil and natural gas from shale deposits that uses high pressure water, mixed with sand and chemicals.
This process is used in shale rocks and other poor flow rate sands that make traditional extraction very costly. Hydraulic fracturing enables energy companies to extract oil or natural gas from these sites, with much lower expenses. The unprofitable suddenly becomes very profitable.
The process works as follows (it is a technical issue so I will resort to a quote for the explanation):
“The fracking process occurs after a well has been drilled and steel pipe (casing) has been inserted in the well bore. The casing is perforated within the target zones that contain oil or gas, so that when the fracturing fluid is injected into the well it flows through the perforations into the target zones. Eventually, the target formation will not be able to absorb the fluid as quickly as it is being injected. At this point, the pressure created causes the formation to crack or fracture. Once the fractures have been created, injection ceases and the fracturing fluids begin to flow back to the surface. Materials called proppants (e.g., usually sand or ceramic beads), which were injected as part of the frac fluid mixture, remain in the target formation to hold open the fractures.”
However cheaper this process may be, its environmental impact is tremendous. The fluid injected into the wells is 98% water, plus chemicals and other materials. If you think that some wells run 3 km deep, imagine the amount of fluid required to exert enough pressure to make the fracking process work. The answer is roughly 30 million litres per fracking. Taking into account that every well can be fracked around 18 times and that there are more than 550 thousand of these wells in the United States, the amount of water used in just the US is 272 trillion litres of water. Yes, it is a lot.
More than that, fracking fluid is mixed with chemicals, sometimes more than 600 of them, some of which can cause serious health problems. During the extraction process, there is a chance that the fluid will leak to fields or underground water canals and contaminate water supplies for miles. The oil industry has been downplaying these incidents, classifying them as “minor”. Also, when in fact something bad happens, the communities affected are paid, in exchange for their silence, to make sure no one else hears about those issues. The fact is that the leaks are real and the result is the following.
Besides the water contamination with methane, there are other chemicals, mixed in the frack fluid, that can spill into underground streams. Some of the chemicals used are publicly known but most of them remain a secret as oil companies refuse to disclose their formula. Legally, they have the right not to do it. So, communities are being affected by the contamination of their water supplies but they are not even allowed to know what it is that is polluting their water and what kind of effects it will have.
When drilling sites are exhausted, most of the water is sealed within the wells, which, again, poses several issues. First and foremost, if adequately sealed, it is a huge amount of water that is completely removed from the system. It will not flow into the oceans, it will not evaporate, it will not rain. 272 trillion litres that will be removed from the system, in the US alone. That is if all of it was sealed underground, which is not. And that is not necessarily a good thing. The fluid is kept in exposed tanks and some of the substances evaporate. They are responsible for acid rain and contaminate the air, affecting nearby communities as well. When the process is complete, they are sometimes sent to local treatment plants that, most of the times, are not prepared to handle such a mix. The supposedly clean water is reinserted into the system, contaminating rivers and aquifers and putting people’s health at risk.
There are also other concerns when it comes to fracking. The underground impact is that of a miniature earthquake and, after some time, there have been cases where those small vibrations start having an impact on nearby buildings.
It is definitely a controversial method, to say the least, one that is used mostly in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, among others. It has also been banned in some countries, given its environmental impact. There are also some issues concerning its promised profitability.
It is a subject worth exploring if one is to make an informed assessment of it and that is why I want to leave you with two links:
- Detailed article by the New Internationalist on Fracking (PDF version available for download for free) – http://newint.org/blog/2013/12/04/frack-files/
- And 2010 documentary on the subject called Gasland. You can watch it below. Hope you find these interesting and helpful.