What are the effects of fracking on the environment?

The oil and gas industry in the United States has enjoyed record levels of production in recent years, mainly thanks to hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as hydraulic fracturing. In 2018, the United States became the world’s leading oil and natural gas producer, ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia. This is due to hydraulically fractured horizontal wells, which in 2019 accounted for 71% of all oil and natural gas wells drilled in the US.

This extraction process combines (often dangerous) chemicals with large amounts of water and sand at high pressure rates to create rock formations; These formations are used to fracture the material that surrounds the oil and gas, allowing its extraction. Fracking is controversial due to a) the amount of natural resources required to complete its process and, perhaps most notably, b) the negative effects it can have on the air and water quality of fracking areas.

Fracking and air quality

One of the main contaminants released in the hydraulic fracturing process is methane. Research indicates that the US oil and gas industry emits 13 million metric tons of methane annually, representing a leakage rate of 2.3% of all production. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by contrast, estimates the rate of fugitive emissions at 1.4 percent. Methane is one of the main greenhouse gases. Its global warming potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year horizon and 28 times over a 100-year horizon.

In addition to the global impact of fracking, there are damaging effects for those who live near extraction sites. A large number of ancillary components released into the wells can lead to health problems such as irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth and throat. Local air pollution can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions. Regionally, fracking-related processes release nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, forming smog that can deprive workers and local residents of clean air.

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Effects of fracking on water supply and quality

At the national and state level, the hydraulic fracturing process uses billions of gallons of water each year. Locally, the average volume of water consumed is 1.5 million gallons per well, according to the EPA. This consumption reduces the amount of fresh water available to nearby residents, particularly in areas where water availability is low. When water is not available to hydraulic fracturing sites locally, it can be transported from other regions, ultimately drawing the available water from lakes and rivers across the country.

Another major concern is water contamination, as there is a risk that chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process will leak back into local water supplies. In a 2015 report, the EPA documented 151 hydraulic fracturing fluid spills. In thirteen of those cases, the spill reached surface water supplies.

The byproduct of fracking water consumption is billions of gallons of wastewater, of which only small portions are reused in the fracking process. Most of the wastewater is injected into underground wells and what is not injected is transported for treatment. The EPA highlights potential leaks from wastewater storage wells, or accidental releases during transportation, as risks to drinking water supplies.

Other environmental concerns

In addition to air and water pollution, fracking can have long-term effects on the soil and surrounding vegetation. The high salinity of sewage spills can reduce the ability of the soil to support plant life.

The bottom line

Although fracking has the potential to provide more oil and gas resources to consumers, the extraction process has long-lasting negative impacts on the surrounding environment. Air pollution and water contamination due to toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are the biggest concerns within hydraulic fracturing sites, while the need for wastewater disposal and reduced water supply are also urgent problems directly related to the procedure.

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Mark Holland

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