What is fracking?

Fracking is a short-hand term used for hydraulic fracturing, which is a method of extracting natural gas from the ground. The process involves injecting a mixture of water, sands, and chemicals into the ground at a high pressure to split rocks. These rocks are in layers deep underground and contain pockets of gas between them. By splitting the rock, natural gas is allowed to escape into the pipes and be collected. The reservoirs containing natural gas are typically sandstone, limestone, or dolomite rocks. However, other reservoirs, such as shale rock or coal beds, are also typical sites in which fracking is used.

chart of lower 48 states shale plays

chart of wells in US

Risks of Fracking

Water contamination

After the natural gas reservoirs have been drained, the chemicals used are left to sit deep underground. These chemicals can contaminate underground water sources. Surface water sources can also be at risk due to spills, faulty construction, or other means associated with the chemicals involved in fracking. These chemicals, such as benzene and formic acid, can be hazardous to human health. The exact chemical makeup of the mixture used by companies is unknown, but it is speculated that close to 700 different chemicals are used, some of which are known carcinogens.

checking for water contamination by gas

Testing for water contamination. If the water is polluted, the gas in it will catch on fire. This is a huge health and safety hazard for the residents living in contaminated homes.

Water depletion

Large quantities of water are necessary for fracking, which place stress on our dwindling water sources. It takes approximately 1 – 8 million gallons of water to complete each job. In areas like Wyoming and Texas, where the water supply is stressed, many fracking companies resort to bringing water from other areas in the country. Fossil fuels and energy are required to transport the water, so it costs even more energy to produce energy. This is a common problem in the energy sector known as the "water-energy nexus". This is the relationship between how much water is evaporated to generate and transmit energy and how much energy it takes to collect, clean, move, store, and dispose of water. More simply, we use water to generate energy, but also use energy in our water infrastructures. The photo below shows the stress placed on water from fracking across America.

Chart of water depletion and shale development in US

Air pollution

The natural gas recovered by fracking is comprised mainly of methane gas. Approximately 3% of the methane is released into the atmosphere during the process. Methane gas is 25 times more potent to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Other areas of pollution

Other hazards have arisen due to fracking, charmingly named “fraccidents”. Blowouts have been known to occur at fracking sites from the energy intensive pumping. Spills from faulty machinery or transportation accidents feed the chemicals and oil into the ground. In addition to the environmental impact, these accidents can have serious effects on human lives operating or living near the accidents.

map of fracking accidents in the US

Support for fracking

Who supports fracking?

Those in the energy industry profit from projecting a positive image of fracking. As long as fracking occurs and  natural gas sells, they can continue to increase their profits. Politicians endorse natural gas as a domestic good, stating things like “We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” (Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., May 2010). While we have nowhere near the energy reserves of Saudi Arabia, America does have large quantities of natural gas as a resource. With the energy drawn from the Marcellus Shale alone, we could produce enough to power every natural gas-burning device in America for 20 years. By focusing on the short-term benefit from the energy we can harness, many ignore the long-term impacts we are inflicting on the environment.

“Positives” of natural gas

Many proponents of natural gas assert that it is a cleaner energy source. It emits half as many greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide when used, less than one-third that nitrogen oxide does, and 1% as much sulfur oxides as coal combustion. The problem with this argument, is that it does not look at the production of natural gas (such as fracking, horizontal fracturing, etc.) During those processes, gasses escape (specifically methane) into the atmosphere and are more harmful to the environment than those listed above. 

Gas = fewer greenhouse gases

Another argument made is that natural gas is more affordable and green than conventional gas and can be used for transportation. On the surface, this math checks out, but there is more to the reality. Even if the entire nation switched to using natural gas, the only manufacture that offers cars able to run on natural gas is Honda. If you happen to be someone who owns a Honda capable of flex fuel, you still would have to find a gas station that offers natural gas. Less than 3% of the service stations in America offer natural gas. Switching to natural gas for our transportation needs is not a viable solution economically or environmentally. We need to find more environmentally-safe energy solutions.

Lastly, there is the  argument that investing in the natural gas will boost the economy and create jobs. Researchers have found that the number of jobs created is far less than what was originally projected. Two large fracking sites, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, span six states: New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. The researchers found that job growth was unaffected in these states after fracking began.

chart showing the truth about job creation

What can I do?

Be informed

            The most important thing anyone can be in today’s society is be informed. By reading information from both sides of an argument, it is easier to produce your own opinions and create compelling arguments. Many of the problems we are facing today from energy pollution are able to continue due to the obliviousness of the American population.

Contact your local representatives

Even if your state doesn’t have natural gas reserves, your senator or representative may still be involved in fracking policies. Write to them expressing your concern for the environmental safeguards in place by today’s legislation. By filling in the loopholes of the Clean Water Act and other environmental acts, we can be assured that companies will not further harm our environment.


Fracking Explained: Opportunity or Danger


Cassandra Tuggle

Last Updated: January 05, 2017