An Intro to Fracking: Environmental and Health Impacts

For those of you who just can’t seem to wrap your head around what hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” really is, we decided to develop a “Fracking 101” post to address it’s main environmental and heath concerns. There are many articles that hail natural gas as the best thing since sliced bread and chastise President Obama for not taking more advantage of our shale gas deposits, so readers could be easily swayed into thinking “yea, fracking is wonderful, why don’t we do more?” Well, here is a list of reasons to be skeptical of America’s new passion for hydraulic fracturing and to make you think twice next time you read a piece describing all the amazing attributes of fracking.

Environment

  • Intense Water Use. Fracking uses water from local rivers and streams, the majority of which does not go back to waterways. Word Economic Forum recently identified water crises as one of top 10 global risks so why would we want to increase dependency on a water intensive process?
    • In order to frack one well and draw the oil out of it in the Appalachian basin’s Marcellus Shale formation, 5 million gallons of water is used. That’s a lot of water for one well— but to put it in perspective, there are about 6,000 wells in Pennsylvania alone.
  • “Cleaner” than coal but NOT “clean”.  There are many claims that the natural gas and oil produced from hydraulic fracturing are “clean” ways to to wean ourselves off of coal. Yet, although it is true that natural gas produces half the carbon dioxide as oil or coal when burned,  hydraulic fracturing (the process used to extract liquid natural gas)  has many other dirty environmental effects and they are worrisome:
    • Leaked methane. Methane, a greenhouse gas pollutant 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is leaked at tremendously high rates in the fracking process. As much as 8% of methane is lost when wells are fracked. Not to mention recent studies released which state that the EPA’s methane emissions estimates are even too low.
    • Energy-intensive drilling. Fracking relies on diesel engines and generators constantly running to power rigs.
  • Air pollution.
    • Methane leaked not only contributes to climate change, but also has visible effects seen as smog. In Denver, Colorado fracking heavily contributed to smog that surpasses federal ozone guidelines and Wyoming smog is said to be worse than Los Angeles.
  • Contaminated aquifers. 
    • Water on fire—you’ve seen the pictures. 4 states have officially confirmed water pollution from fracking. Again, with real water risk concerns, the last thing we need to do is pollute the resources we do have.
  • Hazardous wastewater dumping.
    • A plethora of chemicals or “fracking fluid” is used to loosen up the rock to exract the gas. Companies have been reluctant to disclosure the hodge-podge combination of chemicals they use and lack of transparency or standards for reporting have allowed firms to contaminate local areas and creating hazardous wastewater.

Health & Society 

  • Cancer. Research that found that people living within a half-mile of fracking wells “had a higher excess lifetime risk of developing cancer than people living farther away. Under mounting pressure, companies such as Schlumberger and Range Resources have posted the chemical compounds used in some of their wells, and in June, Texas became the first state to pass a law requiring full public disclosure.; known and suspected carcinogens, including benzene and methanol
  • Chronic Health Effects. Study also shows the “growing number of documented cases of individuals suffering acute and chronic health effects while living near fracking operations – including nausea, rashes, dizziness, headaches and nose bleeds.” The central finding is a strong correlation between proximity to fracking wells and congenital heart defects.
  • Birth Defects. Prior studies have linked the ambient presence of chemicals released during natural gas extraction, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene, to birth defects.

These are the basic environmental and health effects of fracking. It is important to be aware of these factors and support local, state, and national legislation to increase transparency and make fracking more safe. In the U.S. loopholes in environmental legislation have allowed fracking to spread quickly without adequate research and guidelines to gauge and minimize negative impacts.

Please stay tuned for our next post on fracking, as we explore its social and economic impacts.

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