Hydro-fracking is short-term solution to long-term addiction
Published: Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 20:07
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydro-fracking, is a process used in the oil and natural gas industry. The discovery of vast amounts of natural gas in the midwestern United States has spurned the rapid expansion of drilling areas that use hydraulic fracturing as a main method of extraction.
Despite the effectiveness of the hydro-fracking process and the ever-growing demand for natural gas, the side effects vastly outweigh the benefits. The public health implications from the chemicals needed for the fracturing process are of enough concern that Vermont banned the process in the state just last month.
Although the threat hydro-fracking poses to an already stressed aquifer system is enough to warrant extreme caution, the idea that switching over to natural gas will solve more problems than it creates is the real issue. If America is addicted to oil, switching to another fossil fuel makes the nation look like an addict switching an addiction to heroin for one to methamphetamine. It’s time to kick the habit altogether.
Hydraulic fracturing was developed in the United States in the late 1940s as a way to increase oil yields in drilling operations. By fracturing the rock surrounding the drill and pumping in proppants like sand and gelling agents to keep the fractures open, petroleum engineers were able to increase the flow of oil and thus increase the amount of oil from each well.
The process wasn’t extensively expanded until the late 1980s, when horizontal drilling gave geologists a more thorough way to extract natural gas from a single well. It’s estimated there’s around 18,000 wells drilled per year in the United States. This expansion has meant deeper drilling, more fluids/chemicals, and thus more toxic wastewater.
Unfortunately, regulation in the United States has not kept up with this boom. Hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. The decision hasn’t been repealed. Currently, states regulate most of the issues with hydraulic fracturing.
Far and away the biggest concern to those most affected, the people that live near fracking operations, is the effects of the chemicals used in hydro-fracking on drinking water.
Over 750 different chemicals are used in the hydro-fracking process, many carcinogenic and toxic to humans, like benzene and methanol. From 2005 to 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the hydro-fracking industry used 780 million gallons of chemicals, not including the water used to dilute them. Even though they only comprise 5 percent (at most) of the mixture, it’s enough to make it toxic for humans.
This water has to be pumped back out of the ground after use in extracting natural gas. It’s left in giant pits to evaporate slowly, or pumped back into the ground in old aquifers or in deep disposal wells.
The underground storage of natural gas has already produced methane in the wells of residents in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. If natural gas can migrate through the rock to contaminate aquifers, contaminated water can also do the same.
Unfortunately, this knowledge has done little to move Congress toward legislation to combat the problems.
Congress has been mostly silent on the issue of hydraulic fracturing, with no major federal regulation legislation passed since the 2005 exemption.
President Barack Obama proposed a rule in the beginning of May that would require the public disclosure of these chemicals no more than 30 days after the drilling process is complete. Although still a proposed rule, it would help combat the secrecy that surrounds the use of chemicals in the industry.
Some of the chemical formulas are proprietary, or secret. The chemicals used in these formulas were restricted from public disclosure until only recently and only in the states that require it.
Natural gas plays extend clear across the United States, from the base of the Rocky Mountains to the east coast. There’s no talk of slowing the expansion of natural gas drilling in the midwest, despite the many risks associated.
If the United States were to develop every reservoir found, not only would we use up a large percentage of the water from aquifers needed to water cash crops, but widespread distribution of this type of drilling puts every aquifer in the possible extraction area at risk.
The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in the nation which supplies water for the nation’s wealth, is already stressed from over-pumping. Some areas in Texas, an active natural gas region, are in such severe drought that growing crops is no longer possible. Each hydraulic fracking well can use one million gallons of water or more. Thousands of wells across the United States using that vast amount of toxic water, even if recycled in some cases, will not escape the consequences.
The issue is further complicated when actual production numbers are compared with original estimates for the geological play. In many cases, complicated geology prevents full extraction of what resource might have been there, reducing actual production from possible production. The fracturing process increases the ability of natural gas to flow, which means it can flow away from where you want to collect it.