What is Fracking?Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known, involves a complex labour and industry intensive operation whereby a toxic potion consisting of millions of litres of water, sand, and a range of chemicals – many of which are carcinogenic – are pumped into the ground at high pressure. This forces fissures within the bedrock to fracture, releasing natural gas deposits that are held within to be released. The gas then escapes from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure (drilled wells), where it is collected.
While this initially seems like a straight forward operation that may just be the answer to our energy woes, it is not nearly that simple. To the contrary; it in fact presents even larger problems, the most serious being its impact on precious water resources, without which we cannot survive.
The chemicals used in fracking operations vary between energy exploration companies and are typically not disclosed (which is in itself worrisome), but have been known to include diesel, which is in fact an illegal additive in fracking fluids in terms of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the US. These chemicals, together with naturally occurring heavy metals and toxins, including lead, arsenic, mercury, barium, benzene, chromium, strontium and radium, can leach or be forced out the ground to contaminate groundwater sources, rivers, as well as private drinking water wells. Toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also released into the atmosphere, which poses a health risk to people who reside near fracking operations.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon for natural gas to escape into private drinking wells, where it not only poses a threat of contamination, but other safety concerns too. Methane gas has no odour, so is not readily detectable, and consequently if allowed to accumulate in a confined, unventilated area it poses a real danger of causing an explosion or asphyxiating anyone exposed to it – both can be deadly. These stray gases may also escape into the atmosphere and, considering that methane is more than 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, negates any of the hype surrounding natural gas being a cleaner alternative ‘natural’ source of fuel.
Recent surveys conducted in the US have indicated that methane concentrations in drinking water wells situated within a kilometre of fracking sites were six times higher than normal, while ethane levels were up to 23 times higher, with propane gas being found in some wells too.
Squandering Water Resources
Hazards aside, there is also the issue of squandering limited water resources. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that anywhere between 2-5 million gallons of water is used to extract shale gas from each horizontal well that is drilled. This water is typically extracted from local aquifers or from surface water sources, such as local rivers. Depending on the size of the operation and the amount of wells drilled, this can effectively amount to billions of gallons of water that is extracted from natural water sources to support fracking operations.
Extracting water from rivers impacts the rate of water flow and can severely alter freshwater riverine ecosystems, both locally and further downstream, impacting farmers and residents alike. There may also be economic consequences as a result of losses incurred due to lost recreational and tourism potential of impacted rivers and dams, or from agricultural land becoming less productive as a result. Worse case scenario is when the wells run dry – a situation that is currently occurring in Texas as a result of fracking.
The billions of gallons of toxic fracking fluids pumped into the ground to force out the gas is recovered for ‘safe’ disposal. This contaminated sludge has to be deposited somewhere – it doesn’t simply disappear. While energy companies are compelled to treat their fracking waste responsibly, environmental organisations and concerned residents fear that in most cases the facilities available just aren’t adequate to cope with the enormous volumes of contaminated wastewater and sludge generated. An environmental disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy, could cause wastewater treatment plants to overflow, which could result in contamination of surface and groundwater sources. Very often the treated wastewater is pumped into the ground for disposal, but this process has been implicated as the cause of the increase in the number of earthquakes experienced since it was initiated.
The environmental impacts are not just limited to fracking operations. There are also indirect environmental and social impacts. Fracking brings with it a wave of industrial activity into normally quite rural communities. Land is cleared to construct new infrastructure in the form of access roads and well sties. Heavy machinery is trucked in to drill and encase wells, and to pump fracking fluids into- and extract gas from the wells. The toxic sludge byproduct of the process then needs to be trucked out and disposed of somewhere ‘safe’. This all requires a labour force, who then need to be housed. Bang goes the quite rural atmosphere as the trucks and machinery hurtle in, polluting the air we breathe, the soil we grow our crops on, and the water we and our livestock depend on for our very survival. Land is scarred and devaluated, the environment is compromised, and the health and livelihoods of human communities that live there are threatened.
While some countries like France and Germany have outright banned fracking, alarmingly, despite the dangers, many countries around the world, including the US, UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, have not. It seems ludicrous that governments around the world will allow energy companies to poison their water sources; yet this is exactly what is happening. Some things are more precious than oil and money – water is top of that list. Only when all the rivers are poisoned and the wells run dry, will they realize the error in their ways, but by then it may be far too late.