What's all the fuss about fracking?
- By David Quilty -
- Sep 17, 2012
Today's guest blog looks at the controversial subject of fracking...
The state of Vermont in the US has banned it. The countries of France and Bulgaria have banned it too. What is it about fracking that has so many people up in arms but energy companies chomping at the bit to get involved?
Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a method of getting at hard-to-reach natural gas reserves deep underground. Massive amounts of sand, water and toxic chemicals are injected into shale rock layers via wells, inducing fractures which then release the contained natural gas. The gas comes up to the surface of the well in the wastewater where it is separated and stored. While that’s the simple explanation of fracking, at first glance it doesn’t read as being all that bad - at least not until you get into the nitty-gritty of the operation.
Between one and eight million gallons of water is used for each frack... With each natural gas well capable of being fracked 18 times, it could require 144,000,000 gallons of clean water to complete a job.
First, let’s talk about the water needed for fracking. Depending on how deep the well is and how difficult the gas is to get to, between 1 and 8 million gallons of water is used for each frack. With each natural gas well capable of being fracked 18 times, it could require a whopping 144,000,000 gallons of clean water to complete a job. As of 2010, there were nearly 700,000 underground waste and injection wells in the U.S. and one would imagine that number is a lot higher as of this year. Billions of gallons of water are being used to frack in the U.S. alone, never mind around the globe.
So, now we have established that fracking uses a lot of water: no one disputes that fact. Where it gets tricky, and where proponents and opponents of the technique take sides, is when the subject of the chemicals used in the process comes up. Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used for each frack and while the industry is not required to release information on what substances they are using, it is known that many of them are volatile organic compounds and human carcinogens supposedly regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health. Benzene, lead, mercury, toluene, uranium, methanol, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde and xylene are among the 750+ “ingredients” used in the chemical mix often pumped into wells some 8,000 feet underground.
Since 2005, over 30 trillion gallons of these toxic chemicals have been injected deep into the Earth because of natural gas drilling. These chemicals have been linked to groundwater pollution, flammable tap water, localized earthquakes, assorted cancers, air pollution, and elevated levels of ground-level ozone. There are thousands of documented cases of respiratory and neurological damage from the consumption of contaminated water by residents living near natural gas wells. Of course, proponents of the technique say these links are overblown at best and probably not even likely. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disagrees as do many scientists and researchers.
As far back as 1987 the EPA released a report to Congress which stated that fracking could pollute groundwater and as recently as 2011 they released another report noting possible groundwater contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming, where fracking had taken place. In addition, a 2012 University of Texas study listed water contamination and adverse health effects as problems associated with shale gas development. Who should we trust to look into claims of environmental damages from fracking, industry insiders or environmental agencies? While they certainly aren’t perfect, I’ll go with the agencies.
Lately, several high-profile celebrities and groups are speaking out against fracking. Artists Against Fracking, started by Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, is trying to stop the fracking of the Marcellus Shale in upstate New York by meeting with New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in order to convince him to ban it. Currently the group has more than 180 artists and well-known celebrities as members - including Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney - fighting to keep fracking out of the state. Actor Mark Ruffalo has been a staunch opponent of fracking for many years, and Matt Damon’s next film, 'Promised Land', brings an anti-fracking message to theatres later this year. Sometimes celebrities get laughed off for their real-world concerns, but if it helps get the message out, who are we to complain?
Is it worth potentially destroying billions of gallons of clean water, worldwide drinking supplies, and the very soil we use to grow the food necessary for our survival all in the name of cheap natural gas? Wouldn’t our efforts be better served by serious investments in solar, wind, hydro, and other renewable energy technologies? According to estimates from the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. has enough natural gas reserves to supply the country for the next 110 years. But what kind of planet would we be left with after 110 years of fracking?
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