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Fracking in the United States: 10 Key Questions

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is spreading across the United States. But what is fracking, really? And what risks does it pose to our health and environment? Why do we believe fracking is so risky for our water, air, wildlife and climate that it should be banned?

1. What is fracking?
Fracking is a method of oil and gas production that involves blasting huge amounts of water —  mixed with sand and toxic chemicals — under high pressure deep into the earth. Fracking breaks up rock formations to allow oil and gas extraction. It also pollutes our air, water and climate and endangers wildlife and human health. 

Fracking has been documented in more than 30 U.S. states and is particularly widespread in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. And it's expanding into new areas, making states like California, New Mexico and Nevada increasingly threatened by a potential fracking boom. 

2. How does fracking contaminate our water?
Fracking requires an enormous amount of water — as much as 5 million gallons per well. It routinely employs numerous toxic chemicals, including methanol, benzene, naphthalene and trimethylbenzene.
About 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, according to scientists with the Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Evidence is mounting throughout the country that these chemicals are making their way into aquifers and drinking water. 

Water quality can also be threatened by methane contamination tied to drilling and the fracturing of rock formations. This problem has been highlighted by footage of people in fracked areas accidentally setting fire to methane-laced water from kitchen faucets. Water pollution from fracking can happen in variety of ways, including through surface spills and well casing failures. Such accidents are disturbingly common. A fracking boom in North Dakota, for example, has led to thousands of accidental releases of oil, waste water and other fluids, according to a ProPublica investigation. 

Fracking can also expose people to harm from lead, arsenic and radioactivity brought back to the surface of the land with fracking flowback fluid. In fact, fracking waste water is so dangerous that it can't be reused for other purposes. The water we use for fracking is permanently removed from our water supply — a serious problem, especially in western states, where water is an extremely precious resource.

Samples of water before and after fracking, related to research by Dr. Helen Boylan, Westminster associate professor of chemistry, who presented "Shale Happens: An Investigation of the Environmental Chemistry of Hydraulic Fracturing" at Westminster College. Photo courtesy Flickr/wcn247.

3. How does fracking pollute our air?
Fracking can release dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene and xylene. It can also increase ground-level ozone, a key risk factor for asthma and other respiratory illness. The pollutants in fracking water and flowback fluid can enter our air when waste water is dumped into pits and then evaporates. Air pollution caused by fracking may contribute to health problems in people living near natural gas drilling sites, according to a study by researchers with the Colorado School of Public Health. 

4. How does fracking worsen climate change? 
Fracking often releases large amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that traps heat at least 87 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Fracked shale gas wells, for example, may have methane leakage rates of as high as 9 percent. Studies have shown that leakage rates of more than about 3 percent would make burning natural gas in a power plant even worse for the climate than burning coal.

Fracking also allows access to huge fossil fuel deposits that were once beyond the reach of drilling. In California, for example, oil companies are interested in using fracking and other dangerously extreme fossil fuel extraction methods in the Monterey Shale. This geological formation under the San Joaquin and the Los Angeles basins may hold a large amount of extraordinarily dirty, carbon intensive oil. Oil fracking in North Dakota is already yielding about half a million barrels of oil a day.

We need to leave 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to have a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. We simply cannot afford to use dangerous techniques like fracking to keep extracting more oil and gas.

5. Does fracking cause earthquakes?
There are reports from British Columbia and the United Kingdom that fracking has caused small earthquakes, so there is some risk from fracking itself. The greater problem, however, is earthquakes induced when the wastewater from fracking is disposed of in injection wells. A recent study points to underground injection as a key factor in a 5.7 quake outside of Prague, Oklahoma, that did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to local homes. Scientists also concluded that a series of earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio, were induced by underground wastewater injection.

Read our own March 2014 report covering the subject of fracking and earthquakes, On Shaky Ground: Fracking, Acidizing, and Increased Earthquake Risk in California.

San Joaquin kit fox. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

6. How does fracking threaten wildlife? 
 Fracking comes with intense industrial development, including multi-well pads and massive truck traffic. That's because, unlike a pool of oil that can be accessed by a single well, shale formations are typically fractured in many places to extract fossil fuels. This requires multiple routes for trucks, adding more pollution to the air and more disturbance of wildlife habitat.
Fish die when fracking fluid contaminates streams and rivers. Birds are poisoned by chemicals in wastewater ponds. And the intense industrial development that accompanies fracking pushes imperiled animals out of the wild areas they need to survive. In California, for example, more than 100 endangered and threatened species, including the San Joaquin kit fox and California condor, live in the counties where fracking is set to expand.

7. Don't state and federal laws protect people and wildlife from fracking?

Fracking is poorly regulated at the federal level. In fact, in 2005 Congress exempted most types of fracking from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, severely limiting protections for water quality. In April 2012 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized new Clean Air Act rules called “New Source Performance Standards” that will limit air pollutants from fracked gas wells … but the rules don't cover oil wells, don't set limits on methane release — and won't take effect until 2015. Even oil and gas companies that are fracking wells on federally managed public lands are rarely fined for violating environmental and safety rules — and the few fines that are levied are small compared to industry profits, according to a 2012 congressional report. As a result, regulating fracking falls largely to the states.

Inadequate disclosure and poor protections are common features of state fracking laws. In Texas, for example, companies routinely exploit a trade-secret loophole to avoid disclosing which chemicals they're using in fracking fluid. Companies used the Texas trade-secret exemption about 19,000 times in the first eight months of 2012. Pennsylvania state agencies have also confirmed more than 100 cases of pollution in the past five years, despite the state's fracking regulations.

Fracking pollution occurs even in states with regulations. The best way to protect our water, air and climate is to ban fracking now.

8. But hasn't fracking been done in the United States for many years?

Yes — but today's fracking techniques are new and pose new dangers. Technological changes have facilitated an explosion of fossil fuel production in areas where, even a decade ago, companies couldn't recover oil and gas profitably.

Directional drilling, for example, is a new technique that has greatly expanded access to rock formations. Companies also employ high fluid volumes to fill horizontal “well bores” that sometimes extend for miles. And oil and gas producers are using new chemical concoctions called “slick water” that allow injection fluid to flow rapidly enough to generate the high pressure needed to break apart rock. 

As fracking methods have changed and fracking has expanded, so has the threat to public health and the environment increased.

9. How can fracking booms damage infrastructure and create social problems?

Heavy truck traffic associated with fracking in North Dakota has caused extensive damage to state roads. Drilling and fracking a single well can require more than 1,000 truck trips. North Dakota must spend $7 billion over the next 20 years to maintain local roads, according to a 2012 study.

The North Dakota fracking boom has also led to increased traffic accidents and traffic fatality rates. Hospitals in the state's oil-boom area are suffering a debt crisis fueled by the need to treat workers who don't have health insurance or permanent addresses.

10. But won't fracking lead the United States to energy independence?

In a word: No.

While U.S. oil production is increasing, even at its peak we'll still need to import millions of barrels of oil per day. Moreover, oil is a global commodity whose price is dictated by global supply.

Even with extreme extraction techniques, the United States will never completely satisfy its oil needs through domestic production or become closed off from the global oil market. As climate change grows increasingly dangerous, fracking only postpones our necessary transition to an economy that doesn't depend on fossil fuels. The real path to energy independence is through investments in clean-energy technology that we can develop here at home.


Fracking photo by Emiliano Ortiz/Flickr