The natural gas boom in the US due to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has provided the country with a cleaner burning, inexpensive fuel source that has lowered energy bills for industrial facilities and homeowners alike. The fracking process is still a hot topic of controversy wherever it is used to extract fuel. Environmentalists claim it will ruin watersheds and leave scars on the earth, and other concerns range from flammable tap water to carcinogenic soil.
Fracking won’t set your faucet on fire.
The 2010 documentary GasLand famously illustrates the potential hazards of methane polluted water. In the film, a homeowner holds a lit match up to his running tap water and a burst of flame results. This homeowner’s water is contaminated with flammable methane. The film asserts the pollution is the result of a nearby fracking operation, but actually methane pollution can occur in wells which are drilled into natural methane pockets. This was the situation with the homeowner in the film, but by the time this was established the connection between flammable tap water and hydrofracking had already been made. The fact is, the phenomenon of flammable water depicted in the film is not restricted to areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place, but occurs wherever water wells encounter methane pockets underground. This could happen literally anywhere, and it is a result of poorly explored and drilled wells, not fracking.
This is not to say that fracking has never caused such an episode. Isolated incidents of pollution to freshwater wells have been caused when drilling is done too close to the surface, and natural gas companies have settled several cases where damage is attributed to the gas wells.
The point is, however, that the horror story of the flammable faucet is extremely uncommon. For one thing, the drilling components used to trap the natural gas are encased in steel and cement to prevent it from escaping. If the casing is done properly, it is nearly impossible for methane gas to escape. Also, fracking is done so far underground, that escaped methane would have to travel through solid rock in order to contaminate aquifers. There are reports that this has happened due to problems like improperly cemented boreholes. 16 families in Beaver County PA were affected by such an incident. As a result, the drilling company was fined over $1 million. Problems like this are rare, and can be completely avoided by constructing and sealing equipment properly.
Fracking won’t cause earthquakes.
There are several claims around the country, and even around the world, that fracking activity has spurred a number of low-registering seismic disturbances. A recent study released April 16, 2013 by Durham University found fracking to be “not significant” in causing earthquake activity. The study explains that seismic disturbances caused by hydraulic fracturing are minimal. So small, in fact, that they would only be detectable by the sensitive instruments used by geoscientists.
It would be nearly impossible for hydraulic fracturing to cause any major earthquakes unless drilling equipment were to come into contact with a major fault line and somehow cause the fault to release any built up energy it has stored. A recent British study concluded exactly this. “The fact is that court case after court case and study after study have shown plainly that fears over earth tremors . . . have no basis in fracking facts,” summarizes Peter Glover of The Commentator.
Fracking fluid isn’t going to give you cancer.
What is that mysterious concoction being shot underground into the shale rock, and how can it not be dangerous? Fears over pollution and contamination of drinking water and the environment from fracking fluid seem to stem from a lack of information about what this rock-shattering mixture actually is. The secret to fracking fluid is water and sand. Those two components make up about 98% of the fluid mix. The remaining 2% is composed of ingredients that are familiar to many of us, such as citric acid, guar gum (a common food additive, used to suspend the sand in the fluid), and even common table salt. Currently, fracking is regulated at the state level, and as such is exempt from the federal Clean Water act, which would require all companies to disclose the chemicals they use. Even so, some states have implemented regulations requiring disclosure, and some companies list their chemicals voluntarily. The information can be found here.
Certainly not all of these chemicals are harmless to the environment or to drinking water. But, the fracking industry has a habit of recovering most of its fluid and recycling it. This does not prevent every drop of fluid from being spilled, but it certainly means that most of the material is recovered. This saves the company doing the drilling money as well as improving its environmental impact.
Like any method of recovering fossil fuels, hydraulic fracturing does do damage to the environment. But, even accounting for methane leakage during extraction, the total carbon cost of natural gas is less than that of coal or oil. The transition to natural gas for power generation in many places has led to a drop in carbon emissions for the United States. Since the world is not yet ready for 100% renewable energy, natural gas could be a suitable energy source to “bridge the gap” in the transition to truly renewable fuel.