Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is currently a topic of heated debate. From my experience, it seems to be a surprisingly misunderstood issue. Hydrofracking is the process of drilling for natural gas and involves drilling companies tapping into natural gas that is trapped deep inside rock formations, such as shale. The only way to access this energy resource is by pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground at a high enough pressure to break open the rock, allowing the gas to flow out of the formation and be harvested by drilling companies.
Hydrofracking is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around since 1947 where it was first used in Grant County, Texas. However, techniques used back then made hydrofracking less financially feasible than today. Since then, new technology, chemicals and techniques have been developed to make the most isolated gas reserves accessible, the most influential being horizontal slickwater fracturing. First used in 1998 on the Barnett Shale in Texas, horizontal slickwater fracturing uses pressurized fluid to form new channels in rock formations and allows for a higher rate of gas flow and thus, a higher percentage of gas recovered. This has made hydrofracturing an economical fuel source.
Natural gas is a growing commodity in the United States and is preferred by some due to the fact that it is domestically produced, reducing our reliance on foreign oil. It has even been described as “one of the hottest investments in the energy sector” by The Wall Street Journal in 2010. Other countries are already investing, making natural gas a promising fuel. It is also a much cleaner alternative to coal and oil, making a switch to this resource helpful in reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
So you may be asking yourself, is this too good to be true? It turns out, that it might just be. Although natural gas is cleaner burning, the process of fracking actually releases heavy amounts of methane, which happens to be the leading greenhouse gas. The new procedures used during the process are invasive and require mass amounts of over 200 chemicals that are injected into the ground. These chemicals coupled, with volatile organic compounds released when bedrock is fractured, can easily enter freshwater aquifers, which is where we get our drinking water. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, approximately 23 percent of freshwater used in the U.S. comes from underground aquifers. Depending on the geology of the formation, anywhere between 25-75 percent of fracking fluids used in drilling returns to the ground surface along with radioactive materials that may also be released. Additionally, millions of gallons of water are used in the fracking fluid mixture. The fact that global water scarcity is becoming more of a reality brings into question whether we should be using this essential resource for hydraulic fracturing operations.
The contaminated water that results from hydrofracking has harmful effects on surrounding rural communities. Areas impacted by fracking have been shown to have a higher prevalence of cancer. Farms are suffering because their cows have been exposed to contaminated water and have a higher incidence of stillborns, stunted growth and even death. This may cause a lower consumer confidence in meat that comes from areas that are in close proximity with fracking operations, and thus could hurt sales in these areas.
Although natural gas seems like the answer to our energy problems, the negative effects outweigh the potential benefits. The technology that we have at the present time does not have enough safety precautions to ensure that the contamination of our water and food will be prevented. Because of this, it would be more worth our money to invest in clean energy like solar and wind power, rather than in fossil fuels.