What is fracking and why are people worried about it?

Posted in: Fracking, Water Contamination
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Article courtesy of Ann Egerton | July 30, 2012 | examiner | Shared as educational material only

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking has become quite controversial. Credits: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On July 28, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) held a rally, Stop the Frack Attack, at the U.S. Capitol. Dozens of other organizations, including the Sierra Club, also took part. One group, Tour de Frack had been traveling 400 miles by bike from Butler, PA to Washington, D.C. Along the way, they had been collecting stories of people whose lives have been affected by fracking.

So, what is fracking and why is it a big deal? Fracking or hydro-fracking is more formally known as hydraulic fracturing. It is a process used in 90% of natural gas wells, in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break apart the shale, thereby releasing the gas within.

Fracking isn’t a new process. It dates back to the 1860’s, when nitroglycerin was used to increase production from hard rock oils in Appalachian states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The technique was first used for natural gas in 1947, when the Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation experimented with fracking in the Hugoton field in Kansas. Later, the Haliburton Oil Well Cementing Company obtained a patent for the “hydraulic” process which they first used in 1949 on wells in Oklahoma and Texas.

So, if fracking has been around for 150 years, it should be safe, right? Not necessarily.

First off, while hydraulic fracturing was still considered an experimental technique back in the late 1940’s, its product, shale gas, made up 14% of the total natural gas supply in the U.S. by 2009. The EPA expects that to increase to 45% by 2035. This increases the chances of something going wrong.

Second, in the early days, fracking was simpler and operated on a smaller scale. Early wells were only a few hundred feet deep, while modern wells average 5,300 feet deep. In the past, drilling a well called for about 750 gallons of fluid (kerosene and gelled crude oil) and 400 pounds of sand, which served to hold the fractures open. A modern well needs 4.5 million gallons fluids, several hundred thousand pounds of sound, and 65,000 to 600,000 gallons of water.

Modern fracking has been linked to earthquakes. In late 2011, scientists devised a model letting them calculate the highest magnitude earthquake a fracking operation might cause — even though they can’t predict the likelihood of such a quake occurring. The model can be applied to any operation that involves injecting fluid deep underground, which includes both fracking and disposing of the fluids used in fracking. As per the model, every time the volume of liquids doubles, the maximum magnitude of any quake increases by 0.4.

Water contamination is another concern. There have been reports of fracking chemicals found in aquifers. In July 12, scientists reported the existence of naturally occurring pathways in rock that would allow liquids from the Marcellus shale formation to migrate into aquifers. Since fracking chemicals include known carcinogens like benzene, such migration would be extremely dangerous.

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Water news archives. Table of contents – 150 articles – April~July 2012

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