Fracking is Attacking the Environment

Ian Somerhalder Foundation

What the frack is fracking? Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is a unique method used to extract natural gas or oil from the ground. The recent notoriety of fracking can be attributed to shale gas extraction. What exactly is shale? Shale is a type of rock formation that is abundant in the United States, which is a significant reservoir for natural gas. Previously, natural gas from shale was not extracted because there were no means to economically release the natural gas; however, over the past decade fracking has become a way to cost-effectively obtain it.

How does fracking work?

Fracking works by pumping hydraulic fracturing fluid, which contains water, sand and chemical additives, at a very high pressure into a wellbore that targets the shale. Once the fracking fluid is properly pumped down the wellbore, it produces fractures or cracks in the shale formations, which release the natural gas. After fracturing the rock, flow back fluid returns to the surface of the wellbore. This fluid can contain the chemical additives that were used to break the shale and also naturally occurring resources of hydrocarbons, radionuclides, metals and brines.

Since fracking is a method to successfully extract natural gas from the shale, some may believe that this will be an overall benefit to the environment because natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal and oil; however, this is not the case. Currently, many environmental issues have arisen because of fracking. One of the first issues regarding the harmful effects of fracking is the disposal of the hydraulic fracturing fluid. The fracturing fluid can contain potentially dangerous chemicals. Scientists have discovered that the chemicals found in fracking fluid could cause cancer, endocrine disorders, impairment of sensory organs and nervous system disorders.

What about the environment?

If mishandled, the fracturing fluid can possibly contaminate the environment. Spills and leaks are common ways in which fracturing fluid has contaminated water supplies and land. There have been numerous case reports of fracking spills throughout the country, most notably in Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Pennsylvania. More specifically, in Pennsylvania’s Bradford County, a small town called Canton had a large fracking spill in April 2011. It was reported that Chesapeake Energy had lost control of a Marcellus shale gas well that spilled thousands of gallons of fracking fluid, which flowed into a nearby stream and farmlands.

Not only do the spills and leaks of fracturing fluid pose a threat to the environment, but the water requirement of fracking does as well. Fracking a well typically uses one to eight million gallons of water, and a well may be fracked up eight times. Moreover, the drilling process itself can use up to 300,000 gallons of water per day. Usually the water is taken from nearby sources of water such as streams and rivers, which can deplete the water supply and negatively affect the aquatic wildlife. Furthermore, one of the main issues with fracking is the threat to the water supply.

The large amounts of wastewater and other contaminants from fracking require treatment before they are disposed of or reused. The problem with the need for wastewater treatment is that many facilities are unable to deal properly with these wastewaters. The wastewater can contain organic pollutants, natural contaminants from deep underground and normally occurring radioactive material (NORM). Examples of such contaminants are barium, strontium, benzene and radium.

One case report from Pittsburgh, PA, revealed that a treatment facility was dumping fracking wastewater into a creek that had levels well above the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards of barium, strontium and benzene. Moreover, natural gas is mostly made up of methane. Methane becomes problematic because gas wells may leak natural gas, and the natural gas can migrate into the water supplies, giving the water high methane content. When the water content reaches a certain concentration, the water can ignite causing explosions.

In August 2010 in Monroe Township of Pennsylvania, methane was detected in three residents’ water wells and a low level of methane was found in one residence. Because there is so much concern regarding fracking and its effects on water sources, the United States EPA is currently executing a national study on the potential impacts that hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water sources. The rapid expansion of fracking is posing a threat to the environment as well as to the health of the public. Before more natural gas wells are drilled, action needs to be taken to perform more research on the effects of fracking as well as to ensure gas companies are properly disposing of their fracking fluid and wastewater.

What can you do?

There are numerous ways you, as a college student, can get involved. First, if you notice any suspicious or illegal disposal of wastes related to oil or natural gas development, you can notify the natural gas drilling tipline. You can call the toll free number 1-877-919-4372 or send an email to eyesondrilling@epa.gov, where you can remain anonymous. Additionally, you can contact your state’s lawmakers and urge them to stop fracking.

It’s as simple as writing a letter, making a phone call or both! Lawmakers have the power to pass legislature that can further fracking efforts or stop them, but it’s up to the people to voice their opinions. Furthermore, you can become a volunteer water monitor. A volunteer water monitor helps to provide quality data on rivers, lakes, wetlands and so forth, to the EPA. Volunteer monitors generally monitor water temperatures, pH level, bacteria, flow/water level and more. For more information, you can visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website at http://water.epa.gov/.

Most importantly, spread the word on fracking and its detrimental effects on the environment – educate people! Overall, it appears that fracking’s risks far outweigh its benefits, so efforts need to be made to stop it. 

Kaila Evertts
University at Buffalo’s School of Pharmacy ‘13
United States 

 

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