Fracking operations are going on just 100 miles from Grand Teton National Park’s border. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Although many environmental issues stir up strong emotions pro and con, currently none may be more contentious than fracking, slang for high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Fracking is the process of injecting pressurized chemical solutions into well bores in order to fracture the bedrock and release natural gas. Until recently, fracking wasn’t worth the effort needed to extract the gas. But developments in fracking chemistry, however, combined with advancements in mechanical technology that allow well bores to be steered horizontally through large mantles of shale have made the once-inaccessible natural gas repositories lucrative targets for energy companies.

Some believe that shale gas development offers a way to dissolve our dependence on foreign oil only at the expense of our fresh water supplies. Others contend that overblown fears about water pollution stifle wealth and economic development inherent in the resource.

So, is fracking really the environmental nightmare it’s often made out to be, or are fracking fears unfounded?

The freedom of fracking

Fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Since the 1980s when high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling were first pioneered in Texas, the United States has become a global leader in shale gas development. The technology is now being used to explore or produce oil and gas in more than two dozen rock formations in the Lower 48, lowering prices for natural gas, increasing supplies for heating and manufacturing, and putting the U.S. in position to become an exporter of natural gas in the coming years.

According to the group EnergyFromShale, fracking makes it possible to produce “clean-burning” natural gas in places where conventional methods of extracting the resource are ineffective. Fracking, says the organization, boosts local economies by generating royalty payments to property owners, providing tax revenues to the government, and creating much-needed, high-paying jobs.

While fracking proponents admit that drilling might create conduits for nonpotable elements to travel from gas-bearing layers where they are concentrated below the aquifer, they say those risks are mitigated by cement and steel casings that seal the well bore from the aquifer. Besides, aquifers, bedrock, lakes and streams already tend to have naturally occurring levels of metals, methane, salts and radioisotopes, albeit in concentrations that are negligible and harmless. And since pollution can also come from aboveground mishaps, such as spills of chemical or diesel fuel, when problems do occasionally crop up, it’s hard to prove what is and what is not caused by fracking.

Don Siegel, an earth sciences professor at Syracuse University in New York, states that the hydrocarbon alternative to shale gas is mountaintop removal for coal. For him, the problems that go along with burning coal are a far greater environmental menace than fracking. He believes that climate change is moving faster than the worst-case models have predicted, and our real concern should be mitigating our dependency on oil.

Exploratory wells are being drilled right outside Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary. ©Eric Rock

Fracking’s futility

Fracking opponents are quick to point out that the cement and steel casings around the well bores are not infallible. And, they state, the millions of gallons of water needed to make the fracking fluids can draw down local surface and groundwater resources.

While when burned, natural gas emits half as much carbon as coal and 70 percent as much as oil, it still emits carbon. In fact, during the first three months of 2012, natural gas created 29 percent of energy-related U.S. carbon emissions. Its production also emits large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Since drilling and fracking are exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and hazardous waste laws, tracking the chemicals used and waste produced at a given site is difficult. Each company considers its fracking recipes to be proprietary, even though many of the chemicals added to the water to help fracture the rock are toxic. Adding to the complexity is the changing dynamics of watersheds, the geographical expanses they cover, and the fact that drilling and fracking operations are itinerant.

Of course, gas companies need to obtain rights to private land in order to extract the minerals beneath it, and for this they use leases. Standard leases not only grant rights to extract what’s in the ground, they also allow great latitude for surface operations. How the lease is worded determines the extent of disruption to roads and pipelines the operators are permitted, how waste will be disposed of, how material or product will be stored, and where wells can be placed. Unfortunately, in the past, spills and lax disposal practices have contaminated watersheds, and methane has leaked along faulty well bores into the water table. According to the organization Food & Water Watch, to date, there have been more than a thousand documented cases of water contamination near drilling sites, and methane leaks related to drilling have caused houses and wells to explode, causing deaths, injuries and loss of property.

Conservationists are working to document fracking’s impact on wildlife. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

National parks: future fracking grounds?

Whether fracking is a sound practice or not, it soon may be coming to our national parks. Already, some of our most cherished protected lands are being surrounded by fracking operations. Visitors to Grand Teton National Park have noticed fracking operations just a hundred miles from the park’s borders. In Montana, exploratory wells are currently being drilled right outside the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park.

There’s no doubt that the world needs safe, clean and sustainable energy sources. The question is, will fracking turn out to be one of our best options?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy