Environment

What Is Fracking, And Is It Harmful?

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial innovation used for extracting natural gas and petroleum reserves.

History and Development

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, refers to a well stimulation technique that involves the process of fracturing rocks with a pressurized liquid that is injected into a well borehole to create cracks. These cracks then stimulate the release of natural gas, petroleum, and brine. Fracturing of rocks to stimulate the release of trapped gas has been used as a method as far back as the 1860s, when dynamite and nitroglycerin detonations were used in the fracking process. The use of explosive fluids was replaced by the use of acids in the 1930s. The first two commercial hydraulic fracking treatments were conducted in March of 1949 by the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company. After this, the process became highly popular, and in time was seen applied to over one million gas and oil wells across the world.

The Fracking Process

The first step in the hydraulic fracking process is the identification of a drilling location. Shale reservoirs from where oil and natural gas are extracted are usually one mile or more below the surface of the Earth, well blow the underground sources of human drinking water. The first step is to drill holes at the drilling site, followed by the insertion of steel casing cemented in place to act as a barrier to prevent any type of pollution of the underground aquifers. Once the drilling is complete and the final casing is installed, the next step of fracking commences. Here, a perforating gun is inserted into the bore well to perforate the rocks in the rock layer bearing oil and natural gas. This perforation is mild, and tries to establish a base for the third step of fracking, wherein a mixture of water, sand, and a few dissolved chemicals, called the "stimulating fluid", is propelled, under controlled conditions, through the well borehole. There, the stimulating fluid starts fracturing the racks by entering the perforations created at the earlier step. The natural gas and oil trapped within the fractured rocks can then escape into the well boreholes, and collected up to the surface above ground to be ready for taking to a refinery for processing.

Economic Significance

The fracking revolution in the U.S. in 2013 witnessed a 47% drop in natural gas prices in the country. A staggering $13 billion USD drop was also observed in the gas bills in the country from 2007 to 2013. This proves the efficiency and beneficial nature of the fracking technique in oil and natural gas production.

Fracking and Human Safety

Several investigations have been made to assess the effects of the fracking technique on human health. Concerns have been raised about public safety at the fracking sites, where accidental falls or injuries are possible. The extent of exposure of people to the chemicals used in the fracking technique, many of them harmful or toxic in nature, has also been investigated. There is also a possibility that groundwater contamination might occur through fractures or leaks from the vertical boreholes used to frack and extract. Spillage of the waste water, and harmful fracking chemicals on the surface of the ground, might also contaminate the surface water resources with such pollutants.

Environmental Threats and Regulations

Fracking, though economically beneficial, is seen by many as a great threat to the environment. It has several adverse impacts on the environment, such as inducing the contamination of groundwater and surface water, wasting large volumes of water resources (1.2 and 3.5 million US gallons of water per well), destabilizing the ground (thereby increasing the chances of negative earthquake outcomes), and releasing into the air emissions of methane and other gases that trigger climate change and harm respiratory health. Large areas of land are also cleared of native vegetation in order to conduct fracking, displacing many species from their habitats along the way. The fracking process also creates a significant level of constant noise for an extraction duration of 800 to 2,500 days, which adversely impacts the well-being of both local wildlife and people.

More in Environment