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Frackin’ Problems: Your Guide to Natural Gas Drilling

By Bob Sherman

If you’re on this website, you probably care at least a little bit about the environment, and if you care about the environment, you probably know at least a little bit about fracking. Fracking has become one of today’s most controversial environmental issues, yet it is still misunderstood by many people, even (or especially) those in the green community. So, without further ado, here’s your three-minute guide to the what’s, where’s, and why’s of fracking:

What is fracking?

Fracking is the shortened name of hydraulic fracturing, a method of drilling for fossil fuels, usually natural gas, that involves breaking up of fuel-containing rock layers with highly pressurized fluid. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Wells are drilled vertically into the fuel-containing rock layer, then horizontally through the rock.
  2. The horizontal part of the well is encased in steel and cement, with holes placed at regular intervals.
  3. A chemical solution, or slurry, composed of roughly 90 percent water, nine percent sand, and one percent various chemicals, is injected into the well at high pressure.
  4. The slurry goes through the holes the in horizontal part of the well, shooting into the rock layer and breaking it up to release the fuel contained within. This is the fracturing part.
  5. The slurry is recovered, while the sand injected keeps the fractures open.
  6. The fuel from the rock layer is recovered and the well begins to function.

Why the recent uproar?

Shale Gas Outrage 2012

Shale Gas Outrage protesters march in Philadelphia in September 2012/ photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou

Fracking has been around for decades, but the recent boom is due to the technology that has allowed for horizontal wells to be used.
Horizontal wells have made fracking much more desirable, which is why its popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade. But with the rise in popularity, many environmental questions have been raised. Fracking companies have been accused of polluting groundwater, causing earthquakes, dumping harmful chemical waste, and continuing to accelerate global warming.

Why are we fracking?

To paraphrase an admittedly worn-out slogan, “it’s the economy, stupid.” America has massive reserves of natural gas locked up in previously inaccessible shale, and with the ever-improving technology available, there are billions of dollars to be made. The growing industry has created hundreds of thousands of American jobs and shows no signs of slowing down. The massive influx of new fuel has driven prices down significantly in the last year. As we tap into our own fuel reserves more, we as a nation become more energy independent. (Cue Sarah Palin’s “Drill, baby, drill” memes here.)

What are the real environmental effects?

Earlier, I said that fracking companies has been accused of various forms of environmental degradation. Discussing how many of those accusations are accurate was my main motivation for this piece, so let’s go through one by one:

Photo originally at encana.com

Photo originally at encana.com

Groundwater contamination – We’ve all seen the videos of people lighting their tap water on fire because of natural gas contamination. It’s become the symbol of the anti-fracking movement, but the science behind the claims is ambiguous. Many people experienced high levels of methane in their water before any fracking occurred in their area. And studies like this one from Duke University conclude that the source of water contamination is not with fracking per se, but rather with well casings that are not sufficiently built. Shale deposits exist hundreds to thousands of feet below aquifers, so the problem actually arises when the vertical part of the well is insufficiently sealed. The solution that this conclusion implies is not to stop fracking, but rather to ensure that the casings are held to higher standards.

Causing Earthquakes – This may seem like the boldest claim of them all, but the science backs this one up: studies from the US Geological Survey have shown a direct link between fracking activity and increased seismic activity. The good news? The resulting earthquakes are too small to cause significant damage on the earth’s surface. In other words, people and buildings are safe from harm.

The Jon Day Impoundment center near Washington, PA, holds 13 to 15 million gallons of fracking wastewater/ photo by Robert M. Donnan

The Jon Day Impoundment center near Washington, PA, holds 13 to 15 million gallons of fracking wastewater/ photo by Robert M. Donnan

Chemical Waste – Remember the “one percent various chemicals” part of the fracturing fluid? There’s some pretty nasty stuff in that one percent, including acids, disinfectants, and proven carcinogens. Which would be fine if we had some cool and elegant solution to dispose of the water, but we don’t. The most prevalent method of waste disposal is injecting the water deep into the earth, which unfortunately poses many of the same threats as gas recovery: leaky pipes and casings can contaminate groundwater. Wastewater injection is also thought to be the main cause of the increased seismic activity around fracking sites. Waste disposal is one of the most serious problems associated with fracking, but one that can presumably be solved with more responsible practices.

Climate change – It’s fact that every dollar that we put into new fracking infrastructure is a dollar not being spent on green energy technology. It’s also a fact that the natural gas burns cleaner than oil and coal and is on its way to displacing a huge amount of coal and oil consumption in America. So, while ideally we would have economically feasible solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells when we wake up tomorrow morning, we won’t. What we do have is a cheap and plentiful fuel source that releases less carbon than oil and coal that could ease our transition into a future void of fossil fuels. When it comes down to it, fracking could actually be a net positive in our fight against climate change.

In the end, is fracking worth it?

The fracking debate can be boiled down to what we as a nation value more: increased economic prosperity and energy independence, or the risks that fracking poses to our environment. Within a few decades, we will be a net exporter of energy for the first time ever, ensuring that we stay a global economic leader for the foreseeable future. Whether the economic benefits outweigh the environmental costs is a conversation we need to have. I hope this piece will serve as the beginning of that conversation here at Northwestern, rather than the end.

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2 Responses to Frackin’ Problems: Your Guide to Natural Gas Drilling

  1. David Snydacker says:

    You failed to mention the effect of fugitive methane on the climate: http://www.nature.com/news/methane-leaks-erode-green-credentials-of-natural-gas-1.12123

    Also, the poisoning of surface and ground water is not due only to human-made chemicals, but also to the human-driven transport of naturally-occurring but highly toxic materials from deep under ground: http://www.propublica.org/article/new-study-finds-high-levels-of-arsenic-in-groundwater-near-fracking-sites

    Also, to the public, “fracking” is synonymous with “shale production”. And that’s a reasonable conflation, given that shale production is impossible without fracking. So when people blame “fracking” instead of “casing failure”, that’s only a matter of semantics.

    Lastly, any economic estimates for a few decades in the future should be highly suspect: http://www.nature.com/news/natural-gas-the-fracking-fallacy-1.16430

    • In Our Nature says:

      Thanks for the further details, Dave! We meant the post to be an introduction to fracking, but there are certainly other points to bring into the conversation as well.

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