Fracking: The Road to Energy Independence or Environmental Hazard?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 9, 2013 10

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,



  1. Stephen Russell July 10, 2013 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    Energy Indie for Oil alone
    Natl Gas is the major issue
    Otherwise IF doable I say YES & More Jobs

  2. Mary McGrath July 10, 2013 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Great article, very informative. Although I’m in favor of stimulating local economies, it seems the safety of these methods hasn’t been proven yet. And California in particular, already has its share of earthquakes.

  3. Brack Barker July 10, 2013 at 11:34 am - Reply

    Not ‘our best energy option’ but the easiest and dirtiest way to impact the environment. As long as the gas is there, there is no concerted effort to utilize alternative sources such as solar, and in some applications, wind and geothermal. Regardless of where the source of this gas is located, it has its hazards to the water supply by the introduction of chemicals toxic to all life forms. So, do we trade cheap access for energy at the cost of polluting water? You can’t live without water, but you can get by without running a clothes dryer.

  4. Kenneth Hall July 10, 2013 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Environmental Center University of Colorado Boulder
    92% of the coal used in the United States is burned to generate electricity. The Valmont coal-fired power plant in Boulder allows us to turn on our lights at night. as well as run many other kids of equipment and technology Coal has also provided many jobs and helped to raise people’s standard of living all around the world.

    So what’s the big deal?
    Mining coal is extremely dangerous to human health and to the environment.
    Transporting coal requires massive machinery.
    Burning coal emits CO2, a major cause of climate change. Mercury contamination, ozone pollution and acid rain also stem from the firing of coal.
    The environmental effects of coal-fired power generation can been seen everywhere, even in your own backyard. Did you know that Boulder received an F from the American Lung Association for our ozone levels?

    The jury is no longer out. We have one or two years max to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by 80% or global warming becomes permanent – UN
    In the NSW Hunter Valley miners die between 60 – 65 years.
    The children have the highest rate of Asthma in Australia caused by heavy diesel engines from trucks, plant and mining equipment. There is environmentally friendly coal mine and fracking is worse as a direct threat to the environment with methane re;eased into the atmosphere and pollution of our water for starters.

    Mining companies destroy on a grand scale and if you know one that doesn’t its product damages the very air we breath.

  5. David Sanders July 10, 2013 at 11:31 am - Reply

    However, there are energy companies in the United States which extract raw materials and produce fuels (oil, gas, coal) who are good stewards of the environment and usually leave the production fields better than they were before production occurred. The land reclamation programs I have seen first hand (in the coal industry) are much better than the average person would expect. These companies work hand in hand with local and state governments and also environmentalists and are recognized by all as good stewards of the land that they use(d). So, there are energy companies doing it right. They just never seem to get the credit they deserve, and yet, they keep doing it the right way.

  6. Kenneth Hall July 9, 2013 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Our Prime Minister sold the US the idea of clean cheap coal. There is no such thing as cheap fossil energy. it has to be removed from the ground and somebody pays the price which they conveniently forget in their arguments. We pay the price with our water resources destroyed, Eco systems severely damaged, public health issues, the list is endless.

  7. Kenneth Hall July 9, 2013 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    Fracking and longwall mining, some of the more horrifying side effects of energy extraction come from both methods. Two weeks ago I received a message from my solicitor in which she stated “Ken, you have really piissed BHP Billiton”s senior management off”, I shouted and raised my fists in delight. We were the first in Australia to stop the mining giant BHP Billiton from pumping pollution into our Georges river which passes through the full width of Sydney and 11 council areas from its catchment to Botany Bay. So ended a four year battle with the last 18 months in the courts. Five members of the Macarthur Bushwalkers worried about the damage being caused to our drinking water supplies found under the Sydney catchment decided to stop the mining giant and set a standard for New South Wales for future battles. It was a worrying day when our solicitor served our subpoena on two coal mines at their headquartes in Queensland. For three days it went viral around the world and we couldn’t get off of the phone. The headlines were “Macarthur Bushwalkers take on BHP Billiton, income nil, BHP Billiton 34 billion”. Water is contained in aquifers underground here in Australia and throughout the world. Here in Australia it is known as old water because it may have taken 10’s of thousands of years to soak through our rock formations and eventually collect in chambers or porous rock under ground. When the mining giants frack or longwall mine they crack the sub strata causing cracks which can connect one aquifer to anther. It is now reported that pollution from one aquifer in the Northern Territories extends to Papua New Guinea hunderds of miles away, this pollution comes from a uranium mine. Rio Tinto has caused damage in the same region with their copper mines which may take 200 years to clean up but the landowners cannot farm or fish and Rio Tinto has cleverly avoided responsibility.
    Here in Sydney they are mining under our dams and fracking under our homes. Mining companies are drilling near homes in the very centre of Sydney. Gas which can be lit in some fracking areas comes out of the drains and internal piping of peoples homes. Look to your own Pennsylvania and other fracking states for the damage occurring there. The Indonesians bombed and machine gunned so called guerrillas who were trying to get mining companies to close down. They were the original land owners forced off of their land.
    Austrealia’s Great Artesian Basin which has supplied bore water to the farming industry has a noticeable drop in water levels which has caused a few farmers to close up shop because they can’t reach the underground water any more. One cattle owner has stopped operations because his water is now poisoned.
    It certainly causes strong emotions. There are many small groups on the east coast of Australia engaged in battle over both processes.
    The mining companies cause the damage then move on leaving the locals to repair the damage.
    Australia’s farming industry has a life span of many hundreds of years, the mining industry has few and relies on lies, weak politicians, the promise of jobs and the benefits to communities they hood wink.
    I spent four years every weekend recording the conditions on Sydney’s Woronora Plateau with my cameras and took many thousands of photographs throughout the seasons ans inclement weather conditions
    We worked with the local aborigines and saw smashed sacred sites, smashed river beds, longwalls and adjacent to each other. How can this happen to the drinking water supply of Australia’s largest city.
    Like the cigarette and drug companies, BHP Billiton and the many other mining companies from India, US, UK, Korea, China are past masters at telling lies and making promises.
    In January I am addressing a number of students from the US here in Sydney to discuss the affects of both processes on the aboriginal people from my experience.

  8. Rose Merrick July 9, 2013 at 11:31 am - Reply

    The goal is not only reaching energy independence, but producing energy that will NOT contribute to global warming, not harm the ecosystem, and not lead to unhealthy political alliances. Fracking has major draw-backs which makes it a poor choice. It uses and contaminates far to much of our water resources which are already being depleted. It contaminates and disturbs the natural watersheds. It disturbs the natural habitat of wildlife. It disrupts geological formations (which could lead to earthquakes). It encroaches on sacred places of indigenous people and places of extraordinary beauty. The natural gas it produces can cause accidental explosions, destruction of property and loss of human life. We should put our corporate and public efforts monies into producing energy through technologies such as wind, solar, geo-thermal, and wave power. Every country should concentrate on producing their own energy for their own needs and not relying on importing or exporting energy, which leads to unhealthy political alliances.

  9. sinnadurai sripadmanaban July 9, 2013 at 9:45 am - Reply

    everything has its advantages/disadvantages

    • Cindy Oakley July 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm - Reply

      “When the well is dry, we will know the wealth of water” (Benjamen Franklin)
      Twenty years ago, the special 13th edition of the National Geographic was devoted exclusively to the subject of fresh water – our use and abuse of it, our potential supply and our prospects for the future.
      The report stated, “If all earth’s water fit in a gallon jug, available fresh water would equal just over a tablespoon – less than half of one percent of the total”. Consider the facts, “About 97 percent of the planet’s water is seawater; with another 2 percent locked in icecaps and glaciers”. Consequently, one might conclude, “Fresh water is a very limited resource, especially with the onslaught of drought, climate change and the steady rise in population”.
      Furthermore, twenty years ago, the United States consumed approximately 339 billion gallons of ground and surface water a day, about 1300 gallons per person. William Graves, Editor of the report concluded, “The problem is people, the ever increasing numbers and the flagrant abuse of one of our most precious, and limited resources”.
      2013 – Do we know the wealth of water?
      Exactly twenty years later, a process called hydro-fracturing has entered the picture. Hydro-fracturing or fracking, for short, uses millions of gallons of fresh water per well in an attempt to extract natural gas from far below the earth’s surface.
      According to Clean Water Action, Natural gas wells used in the fracking process are much bigger and deeper than traditional natural gas wells. They can also present a host of environmental threats:
      • Fracking requires a minimum of two to four million gallons of fresh water per well, which could de-water nearby streams or rivers, particularly during seasons of drought.

      • They produce a million or more gallons per well of heavily polluted water which must be properly treated and disposed of. This water is very salty—6 to 10 times saltier than the ocean—and also contains radioactive elements and toxic metals like arsenic that it picks up from the earth. In 2008, drinking water consumers along the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania were warned not to use the water because it was too polluted, in part from discharges of water from Marcellus shale wells.

      • The wells require exceptionally large well pads–up to 5 acres each—and a series of roads and pipelines to connect them. These pads, roads and pipelines often run through pristine areas, damaging streams and fragmenting our forest habitat.
      • The chemicals stored at the well site pollute the air; and the thousands of diesel truck trips needed for each well spew soot into the air, and create additional carbon emission pollution. Diesel soot has been linked to a variety of cardiovascular diseases, including lung cancer.

      • The drilling process can allow methane and other contaminants in the earth to travel to the surface, contaminating drinking water wells. Several studies have found that private drinking water wells near shale gas wells are more likely to be contaminated with methane, which can make the water undrinkable (and flammable!)

      • More than 1000 cases of water contamination near drilling sites have occurred and methane leaks related to drilling have caused homes and wells to explode, causing deaths, injuries and loss of property.

      Additional Dangers of Hydraulic Fracturing
      Known as the Halliburton Affair in the 1990’s, Congress voted that shale and natural gas extraction be exempted from the Clean Water Act. Today, there is little regulation of the fracking process. Companies claim “trade secrets” and are not required to report chemicals used in their cocktail of fracking fluids.
      Residents in Dish, Texas, near the Barnett Shale, have complained about unexplained sickness in humans and animals since drillers came to town. Consequently, high levels of toxic chemicals such as benezene have been found in the air surrounding drilling sites.
      As legislators across the country continue to support the “Fracking Boom” in favor of economic development, billions of gallons of fresh water will be used in the process. Will aquifers run dry? Will rivers and streams become contaminated? I contemplate Ben’s words, “ When the well is dry, we will know the wealth of water”… Possibly, sooner that we think.

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