On the Depths of Fracking

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Hydraulic fracturing, whereby millions of gallons of chemically enhanced water are pumped thousands of feet down in the earth in an attempt to extract idle methane gas, is the subject of much debate, both in the discourse of environmental conservation and that concerning the sustainability of energy demands. However, a firm grasp of the dynamics of hydraulic fracturing necessitates an understanding of both the benefits and drawbacks of such processes, as well as the political and legal ramifications that are associated with what many in the trade have simply taken to calling “fracking”.

Benefits of Hydraulic Fracturing

There is much that society stands to gain from the energy productions of hydraulic fracturing. Foremost amongst these benefits is the increased availability of what many deem to be a source of energy “lauded as a cleaner burning fuel than either coal or oil” (Weinhold). Looking back on the catastrophes of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion near the Gulf of Mexico, there is no longer any doubt as to the environmental dangers surrounding oil drilling. There are also limitations to drilling for oil that do not hinder the process of hydraulic fracturing. One of the attractions to this particular form of energy extraction is the depth at which it can access the earth’s natural resources. One article notes that “companies must drill deeper to extract the resources, with oil and gas drilling depths steadily increasing from averages of 4841 feet in 1990 to 6108 feet in 2000 (Weinhold). What natural reserves the earth has left are becoming increasingly difficult to access and as such, more sophisticated means of energy production are continually experimented with in an effort to solve what might seem to some to be a perpetual need for electricity.

Despite many of the concerns of those who oppose fracking including those views of Greenpeace, the industry has taken many precautions so as to leave the least impressionable carbon footprint possible. One cause for worry as regards hydraulic fracturing is that such methods of harvesting pose a threat to the freshwater aquifers that provide much of the nation’s drinking water, but one authority asserts that such “concerns about aquifers are unfounded…[and that] fracking will take place far below the drinking aquifers” (Venables 27). Nonetheless, many experts still assert that the dangers to drinking aquifers are considerable and irrefutable, but one is inclined to agree with the former given the depths at which drilling occurs.

A Cleaner Alternative. There is legitimate support for more widespread adoption to the practice of hydraulic fracturing as a source of energy procurement inasmuch as the resource, at least when compared to hydrocarbons, is an exceptionally clean one. Concerning natural gas, one expert states that it is “by far the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing about half as much carbon dioxide as the energy equivalent amount of coal. It also contains almost none of the heavy metals found in coal…[and] our domestic reserves are plentiful” (Marsa). Furthermore, one Ernest Moniz, “[former] director of the MIT Energy Initiative,” supports such claims by saying that “Natural gas truly is a bridge to a low carbon future, and could enable very substantial reductions in carbon emissions—as much as 50 percent by 2050” (Marsa). With such prestigious intellects endorsing the advantages of natural gas, it is somewhat difficult to oppose, what is at this juncture, the predominant method for its extraction. Still, there are others who nonetheless vehemently dispute such claims of environmental superiority. Those views are expressed in the documentary, Don't Frack Me Bro.

Adverse Effects

As with any capitalist venture of an industrial nature, there are many authorities that purport hydraulic fracturing is just another of the many detriments plaguing the worldwide environment. With a number of fracking sites reporting surface spills in recent years, it appears that many of these assertions are rooted in fact. Even more astounding are the experts who claim that such processes actual threaten the geological stability of the surrounding environment. As with any dispute, it is often the case that both sides present some degree of validity in their arguments.

While there are academics and other professionals who assure the general public that fracking poses no threat to the safety of drinking aquifers, there are others who contest such assumptions. One former employ for gas and oil tycoon Schlumberger says that those who assert aquifers are not at risk, because of the large amount of shale rock in between the drilling sites and the aquifers, reference only single “Tracks” in their estimates, “one water blast, one lateral, one time” (Mooney). However, the reality of hydraulic fracturing is that often times, “to maximize access to the gas…companies may drill a dozen or more vertical wells, closely spaced, at a single site. They may frack the lateral for each well in multiple segments, multiple times” (Mooney). A greater number of fractures in the shale formation may, in fact, increase the likelihood of some of the chemical compounds used in hydraulic fracturing, specifically those in the water, being deposited in underground drinking aquifers. The porous condition of shale formation after repeated fracking in adjacent locations further increases the chances of these toxic substances reaching aquifers. However, there is some evidence that such contaminations are not the direct result of hydraulic fracturing.

Some experts suggest that contaminated aquifers are subjected to such toxins by means of faulty equipment or well construction craftsmanship. In one article, scientists from the National Academy of Sciences conducted a study of 60 private water wells and found that 51 of them contained traces of methane, but upon further inspection it was concluded that the samples were devoid of fracking fluids and that it was much more likely that the presence of methane came about as a result of faulty cementing or casing of wells (Mooney). This is an important point as it posits that the actual process of fracking is not, in and of itself chemically hazardous, but rather the safety any region near a fracking site is contingent upon the integrity of the site’s machinery and workmanship. At any rate, it seems that hydraulic fracturing may, one way or another, pose a very real risk to nearby constituents.

On the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, one of the most debated aspects of the industry is the toxicity of the water that is used to extract shale gas. Some of the substances found in fracking water that are hazardous to human beings have been petroleum distillates and aromatic hydrocarbons, in addition to substances as toxic as formaldehyde and benzene and as benign as salt, instant coffee, and walnut hulls (Heywood). Introducing toxins like these into nearby soil, and potentially into water supplies as well, could have dire ramifications for the health of anyone within a hundred miles. Unfortunately, there are few laws governing the operations of companies engaged in natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, at least on the federal level. As with any industry, different states very often have different statutes outlining specific regulations pertaining to a given trade. The toxicity of water used in fracking is cause for legitimate concern for anyone residing even remotely close to an extraction site, but for some, the consequences of fracking can be far worse, and much more resounding, than polluted drinking water. The water used in hydraulic fracturing, though, is the source of considerable concern.

On the subject of water, its toxicity level is not the only concern in regards to some of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing. The process of fracking requires inordinate amounts of water to accomplish its objective. At a single site, anywhere from “2 million to 13 million gallons [of water]” (Davenport) might be employed to extract the resources lying idle in the rock below. More conventional methods of extraction for gas and oil generally only need around twenty thousand gallons of water for operation (Davenport). Such extraordinary levels of consumption have wreaked havoc in parts of the country where arable land constitutes a large percentage of the economy. In Colorado, for example, one farmer, Kent Peppler, had no choice but to cut back on the irrigation of his land after his entire county was deemed a national drought disaster area (Davenport). With a shortage of water unlike anything farmers have ever experienced, drought and the sun can decimate entire fields of produce. One must consider the consequences of such consumption when it comes at the expense of not one, but two of mankind’s most essential resources: water, and food - leading to a future where food insecurity will be more prevalent. Additionally, threats to another of mankind’s most vital necessities—shelter—have been alluded to as a result of fracking.

One topic, in particular, has garnered substantial attention from academics and experts—the threat of seismic disruption from hydraulic fracturing. However, almost as quickly as discourse commences, such concerns are quickly dismissed, as Venables reports that “most of the fracturing…will take place below 5000 feet (1500m), and its effects will be well below the threshold of what the BGS network can monitor” (27). What this means, according to some experts, is that the underground effects of fracking would produce nowhere near sufficient geological disturbances to register on the equipment that monitors seismic activity.

Unfortunately, these are some concerns surrounding the fracking industry that are no longer the result of armchair theory, but that are rather the reactions to actual events with measurable, material impact. Scientists at the annual American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo presented a study that found that between 2010 and 2011 “seventy seven surface spills that contaminated ground water were reported,… [and that] an average of seven barrels of hydraulic fracturing water were spilled during each incident” (New Research). One of the worst incidents occurred in Pennsylvania when the failure to treat contaminated wastewater, a byproduct of the process, resulted in the widespread contamination of two major river watersheds that supplied potable water to almost a million people (Arnowitt 45). Considering the levels of toxicity in water used for these purposes, it is no wonder that there has been such a profound outcry for increased regulation of an industry that can clearly be hazardous to the public.

Disposal of Wastewater. One of the ancillary concerns surrounding the process of hydraulic fracturing is the disposal method for wastewater generated at extraction sites. One expert explicates how “this water needs to be treated like industrial waste,” and asserts that otherwise, a combination of “radioactive material and a slew of other toxic compounds could leach into the groundwater, potentially tainting it for generations” (Marsa). Even though many experts agree that such contaminations are highly unlikely given the depths at which hydraulic fracturing takes place, that there is even a possibility of some industrial-grade sludge seeping into nearby water supplies more than warrants the apprehension expressed by those who oppose widespread commercial fracking. And while the regulations and legislation concerning hydraulic fracturing are considerably different across state lines, three states in particular, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado require further discussion.

Legal Environment And Taxation

The legal context of hydraulic fracturing has undergone a number of changes since the process gained widespread popularity in the late 1990s. While the process of fracking is in fact quite regulated at the state level, the lack of comprehensive federal legislation leaves much to interpretation for individual states.

Pennsylvania. Washington County is one of the most drilled counties in the state of Pennsylvania as it sits atop the now famed Marcellus Shale Formation. As such, there is considerable discord between those who wish to use the land for arable or other environmentally friendly purposes and those who wish to mine the area for its natural resources. As many corporations sought to secure rights to land in gas-rich areas, locals went on the offensive to preserve what was theirs. Some residents turned to local governments in an attempt to ban gas drilling altogether, while others attempted to leverage zoning laws to either restrict fracking to small industrial areas or to protect certain areas of town (Arnowitt 46). Initially, their efforts were not in vain and saw hundreds of Pennsylvania municipalities change their ordinances concerning zoning (Arnowitt 46). But as time progressed, corporate conglomerates still had their eyes on the shale-infested terrain, and they were not about to so easily relinquish their interests. With nearly unlimited financial resources and strong influence in lawmaking circles, these corporations managed to bring about Act 13. This law marked a pivotal defeat for the Pennsylvania natives as it mandated allowance for “gas drilling, open air chemical impoundments, and pipelines…as close as three hundred feet to homes, schools, and other places local governments had sought to protect” (Arnowitt 46). Furthermore, Act 13 essentially had the effect of separating land rights into two categories, those concerning minerals above ground and those in regards to minerals below the surface, a sly technicality that in many ways gave these corporations free rein to do with the land as they please (Arnowitt 46). As is stands, there is still considerable litigation involving the energy companies and those from whom land has been seized or otherwise corrupted as a result of hydraulic fracturing.

Ohio. There is evidence out of Ohio that seems to contradict what many professionals have long asserted regarding fracking: that no significant seismologic event can ever occur as a result of the processes involved. Despite such assurances though, it is interesting to note that since “1776, the people of Youngstown, Ohio, had never experienced an earthquake…[but] in 2011, more than 100 tremors were recorded” (Fracking Linked 20). This after a local well went online to remove recently produced wastewater from nearby fracking. The authors further describe how the onset of these quakes occurred shortly after the activation of the local well “Northstar 1”, and quickly abated following the well’s cessation (22). These findings are further corroborated in a recent study from US Geological Survey scientists in which it is suggested that “the “remarkable increase” in the rate of minor earthquakes…is “almost certainly manmade”” (Clayton). The profundity of these findings can only be described as a wake-up call for those in the academic and scientific fields to take a stand and support widespread government regulation for this decidedly hazardous industry. Of particular interest and concern is the San Andreas Fault in California, where a fracking-influenced earthquake could cause significant structural and economic damage.

Colorado. While many states institute statutes that are somewhat similar, one state has taken considerable measures to more fully promote transparency of gas companies’ disclosure regarding the chemical composition of their fracking water. Colorado stands alone as the only state “obliging both the names and concentrations of chemicals [for fracking chemicals], while with others the obligation applies only to concentrations of hazardous materials” (Heywood). Granted one might conclude that indeed it is only the quantities of hazardous substances that concern the general public, seeing as how even a substance like Batrachotoxin, a poison so potent that a dose equal in volume to two grains of table salt could kill a human being, would have little effect if diluted in 1,000,000 gallons of water (Tokuyama). Conversely, it is somewhat inconsequential that energy corporations only be required to disclose ‘concentrations’ of hazardous substances while omitting any identifying information, as without such information it is next to impossible to assess the environmental impact of such substances if any. That Colorado has mandated hazardous substances be both identified and quantified is one reason it stands as the model state towards which others across the country should strive.

Another aspect that separates Colorado from other states enabling hydraulic fracturing is some of the recent decisions in fracking-related lawsuits. One company, Antero Resources Corp., recently “negotiated an agreement with civic leaders to use non-toxic hydraulic fracturing fluids, monitor water supplies, and avoid the use of wastewater disposal pits” in western Colorado (Marsa). Setting such environmentally conscious legal precedence only strengthens the notion that Colorado is determined to reduce the harmful aftermath of fracking. And while some states are taking measures to ensure that commercial gas fracking imposes minimal environmental hazards, it is worth noting that not all forms of fracking are necessarily damaging to the environment.

Other Instances

Hydraulic fracturing is not solely a process employed to extract natural gas and oil from the ground. While such are the primary functions for fracking a well, a related undertaking, environmental fracking, has persisted for decades relatively unnoticed. Environmental fracturing really has two major applications, “enhanced well performance and passive treatments” (Slack 20). Of the two, enhanced well performance applications are most similar to fracking in the gas and oil industries” (Slack 20). The former is, simply put, a procedure that attempts to make existing wells more efficient, both in terms of waste management and fluid distribution during the actual fracking phase of operations. The latter is for sites that, after the initial fracturing, are not intended for any “subsequent pumping or injections” as these particular sites, with the addition of reactive solids, depend on the natural fracturing capabilities and the flow-system of local geography to degrade contaminants (Slack 21). Additionally, the overall technique of environmental fracking has other key distinctions.

Key factors that differentiate environmental fracking from its more industrialized energy-bound counterpart are the primary objectives of the process and the quantity of water required. Whereas the primary objective in hydraulic fracturing is the extraction of dormant methane gas deep beneath the earth’s surface, environmental fractures are only ever employed to counteract contaminants in more shallow ground. As the depths achieved are nowhere near those in conventional fracking, environmental fractures only require a few hundred gallons of water to accomplish their purpose. As previously mentioned, it is not uncommon for commercial fracking sites to consume millions of gallons of water in extracting resources. This is an important aspect of environmental fracking that distinguishes it from commercial fracking in that the amount of water employed dictates the fracture’s affected area. As such, the relatively insignificant amount of water used extirpates any concerns of adverse effects to unexpected areas near environmental fracturing sites (Slack 23). Additionally, water composition and other factors of environmental fracking also contribute to the process’ distinction from conventional hydraulic fracturing.

Further setting it apart from the conventional process of hydraulic fracturing are the characteristics of the additives in the processed water and the pressure required for fractures of the environmental nature. Such compounds can be formulated using potable water and simple household products that pose no threat to the environment (Slack 23). Conversely, the makeup and quantity of proprietary additives in shale gas extraction methods form the fundamental argument surrounding concerns for groundwater contamination. Energy corporations, citing their right to trademark confidentiality, are often exempt from having to disclose the composition of “fracking fluids”, and as such, there is much concern of exactly what types of chemicals these companies are injecting into the soil. Lastly, injecting water some thousands of feet into the ground requires substantial generation of pressure, but the superficial depths of environmental fracking need about as much pressure as that residing in the tire of a bicycle (Slack 23). The infinitesimal pressure of such operations poses little risk to the integrity of well casings and seals, so leaks in this context are relatively non-existent. This is simply another aspect the sets apart environmental fracturing operations from the more publicized commercial ones. Considering the distinctions, arguments can certainly be made that hydraulic fracturing is not entirely, or rather is not always, a destructive process. Furthermore, the benefits of fracking may exist not only in the ability to extract natural gas but in a more collaborative manner towards attaining sustainable energy consumption.

The Future of Fracking

It would seem that the future of fracking, at least to a certain extent, may be reduced to a supplemental role in the support of perhaps another clean energy initiative, geothermal heat. Production of geothermal heat consists of pumping water down beneath the earth’s surface where it turns to steam on the hot rocks below and is channeled up to spin turbines. One article states that “the same fractures that send natural gas streaming out from deep wells also allow geothermal heat to be tapped from practically anywhere on earth” (Biello). This seems like a feasible solution to the energy dilemma considering the fact that tapping a mere 2 percent of the heat from the Earth’s interior “could satisfy current US annual energy use 2000-fold for each and every year of the foreseeable future” (Biello). However, as with all solutions, there is a caveat here that must be considered. Not only is the process of geothermal heat extraction an inherently risky endeavor, but there are also additional economic risks involved in mining such forms energy. Running counter to the costs that such power plants’ construction incur, there is a “$6-million to $8-million risk of…drilling…a well that does not produce steam” (Biello). Similar risks might be calculated for any business model with a dimension of exploration, but the risk is more distinct in this particular line of energy extraction. For the time being, then, such experimental forms of energy production will likely be placed on the back burner until a more viable method is conceived.

One other alternative to “slickwater fracking” is the advent of a process whereby hydraulic fracture is achieved using either very little or no water. Companies have been experimenting with these methods since even before slickwater fracking became the norm. One alternative method employs “liquid CO2 and nitrogen gas with foam…[whereby] the CO2 vaporizes and in the case of nitrogen mingles with the shale gas, leaving only proppant in the fractures” (Heywood 45). Another method that operates independently of water is one where “propane or liquefied petroleum gas” is used, and this particular approach is unique in that unlike the other methods, “it does not damage the fracture” (Heywood 45). Still, one potential drawback to the methane approach is that it would likely necessitate some kind of infrastructure that could supply propane to different locations across the nation via pipelines—a system not currently in place in the United States. That even the alternatives to fracking represent significant risk, both materially and financially, the industry will likely need to experience significant advances in operational logistics and safety measures before it becomes the next dominant method of energy production.

Even considering the potential costs of large-scale hydraulic fracturing operations throughout the United States, the sheer quantity of shale, from which natural gas can be extracted, is reason enough to hypothesize that it will likely be a dominant form of energy in the future. One study cites analysts from Water Protection Council and ALL Consulting as saying that “known reserves within existing shale plays will provide heat and electricity for American consumers for at least another hundred years (Davis 180). With rampant destabilization in the Middle East, America’s primary source for crude oil, it stands to reason that sourcing local energy is both a politically and economically prudent course of action. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for our current energy suppliers.

A few foreign governments have taken notice of America’s efforts to become a self-sustaining energy producer and have reacted by taking steps to ensure that other nations’ dependence on their product is not so easily foregone. Abu Dhabi Media has even gone as far as to finance the full-length film, “Promised Land”, which highlights some of the negative aspects of the fracking business (Fire Ice). On a related note, Russian firm Gazprom, another major player in the oil exportation business, is quick to point out the potential costs of fracking despite the company’s use of similar techniques in its own oil fields (Fire Ice). It is understandable that nations that derive billions, perhaps trillions, in annual revenue from the energy business would use any means necessary to ensure their products continued necessity, but the United States is not the only nation attempting to free itself from grip of fossil fuels.

There are other countries as well who, weary of dependence on foreign nations, have taken similar steps towards energy independence. Most notably, Japan, historically dependent on imports from regions around the UAE, “has embarked on a program to extract gas from its massive reserves of methane hydrates—fire ice—locked in permafrost at the bottom of the ocean (Fire Ice). If successful, this venture has the potential to liberate, almost entirely, the nation of Japan from its dependence on fossil fuels. Regardless, there is much to consider in determining whether or not hydraulic fracturing is more beneficial than detrimental.

The discourse surrounding the dynamics of hydraulic fracturing, its accolades and pitfalls, uses and abuses, likely will not recede any time soon. There are so many variables to consider when attempting to advocate or oppose such operations that discussions inevitably lead to more questions than answers. That hydraulic fracturing can extract resources that are otherwise inaccessible by conventional drilling methods is beyond questioning. And one must confront the fact the dependence on fossil fuels, commodities that by and large must be imported into the country, is no longer a sustainable approach to the energy crisis. Conversely, one must also acknowledge the fact that in certain states, hazardous chemicals are used in the water component of hydraulic fracturing which may pose grave health risks to the drinking aquifers of nearby residents. In addition to contaminating drinking water supplies, the research suggesting that the onset of catastrophic seismological activity stems from the astronomical levels of pressure that fracking exerts on subterranean earth is indeed a chilling thought to behold. Still, much remains unanswered surrounding various aspects of the operations. For starters, until there is an overarching legal precedent mandating full disclosure of all employed chemical substances, widespread fracking will remain a controversial issue. Additionally, certain contingencies must be answered concerning water and just what constitutes an equitable distribution between the agriculture and energy industries. Ultimately, fracking may turn out to be nothing more than the manner in which the United States embarked on an unprecedented migration from fossil fuels to geothermal energy—of course, that is contingent on whether sufficient infrastructure is put in place via which to transfer the massive amounts of methane required for such operations. Indeed, the future of fracking is an extraordinarily obscure one, to say the least.

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