Hydraulic fracking: Helping economy, harming environment

The controversial method of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) used to release natural gas and oil from the ground has stirred debate across the country.

California and dozens of other states have strict regulations to adhere to when it comes to drilling and fracturing. Citizens and environmentalists alike have expressed concern over whether this decades-old method is doing more harm than good to the environment.

“Fracking is the process of mixing water, sand and chemicals and injecting it into the ground to break shale rock which releases natural gas,” said Sara Gibson, Environmental Health and Safety Manager at Harper College.

Photo courtesy of water.usgs.gov

According to dangersoffracking.com, this process uses over 600 chemicals, including mercury and lead. To maintain all 500,000 gas wells in the country, 72 trillion gallons of water and 360 billion gallons of chemicals are used.

California’s conservation database reports that Los Angeles County alone has 3,750 active gas wells and produced 13,268,664 Mcf (1000 cubic feet) of natural gas in 2013.

After the fracking process is complete, about 40 percent of fluid is recoverable and the rest is left in the ground. The leftover product is not biodegradable, causing environmental concerns.

“The bottom line is that fracking is a new way to use dirty inefficient fuels and the sooner we can switch to renewable energy the better we will be,” said Matt Rogers, Environmental Science teacher at Cary-Grove high school.

One of the main issues with fracking lies within the leftover waste fluid and methane gas contaminating the air and water supplies. The fluid and gas sit in open air pits and evaporate, releasing volatile organic compounds. These VOC’s create air pollution and acid rain.

“The [methane] gas released from fracking can contaminate nearby groundwater, and once that happens it can’t be uncontaminated. We need to find a better, safer system of getting natural gas,” Gibson said.

In areas near fracturing sites, methane is 17 times higher in drinking water than in normal wells. Drinking tainted water can cause respiratory, sensory, and neurological damage, reports dangersoffracking.com.

“I believe that in most cases if done correctly there should not be an issue, however nothing is perfect,” Rogers said.

A study was done in 2013 by the Associated Press requesting documents of complaints due to drilling in four states. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, and Ohio all provided documents containing water-contamination complaints.

While there have been hundreds of water-contamination complaints in each of the states, only a handful of cases have been confirmed to be linked to drilling. Texas claimed to have no confirmed cases over the past ten years. Evidence was strong enough in four cases from West Virginia that the driller agreed to take corrective action.

Hydraulic fracturing is regulated in the Safe Water Drinking Act and Underground Injection Control (UIC), but only regulates the subsurface emplacement of fluid by well injections.

“The underground injection of fluids or propping agents pursuant of hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas or other geothermal production activities are exclude from these protections,” stated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The UIC program oversees the construction, operation, permitting, and closure on injection wells that place fluids underground such as in hydraulic fracking. The program provides information on how to safely operate wells and prevent contamination of nearby water supplies.

Fracking also is under NEPA regulations, (National Environment Protection Act) in which federal agencies are required to consider environmental impacts of their proposed actions and find alternative ways to make it more environmentally friendly.

Privately owned drilling corporations have challenged NEPA. The Delaware River Basin Commission argued against the use of the NEPA document for the hydraulic fracturing of the Delaware River Basin.

“The defendants have argued that approval of the regulations is not a federal action requiring the preparation of a NEPA document because the DRBC is not a federal agency,” said Brandon J. Murrill, a Legislative Attorney for the Congressional Research Service.

A conclusion was never reached for this case but DRBC deleted its NEPA procedure due to “lack of funding” in 1997. Without adhering to NEPA, DRBC has free reign to drill without regulations and leave the environment vulnerable to pollution.

Water and air pollution are not the only known side effects of fracking. More frequent earthquakes have become a concern.

Earthquakes in areas surrounding fracking sites have become more prevalent, especially in states like Oklahoma. According to the U.S. Geological Survey website (USGS.gov) Oklahoma has recorded 40 earthquakes with a 2.5+ magnitude in the past seven days.

Photo courtesty of thenation.com

California, a state known for its regular earthquakes has only had 13 with a 2.5+ magnitude in the past seven days.

The increase in earthquakes throughout Oklahoma is not due to natural occurrences. USGS reported that the recent spike in quakes does not match with the typical fluctuation of seismicity rates.

“The analysis suggests that a likely contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes is triggering by waste water injected into deep geologic formations,” said the USGS database.

Drilling and breaking the earth’s underground rock has caused small earthquakes to become more likely in surrounding areas.

“The hydraulic fracturing process can cause very slight seismic activity; usually 10,000 to 1M times lower than a magnitude 3.0 earthquake,” said EnergyFromShale.org

The environmental impact caused by fracking cannot be denied, but some argue the economic benefits outweigh the environmental costs.

Fracking creates jobs. Since the country is using its own resources now rather than importing everything like it did in the past, it has caused an economic boom.

There has been steady increase in the oil and gas extraction sector employment since 2003. In 2012, the job rate was up by 67 percent.

Fracking had a 61 billion dollar economic impact in 2013. It supported over 16,000 fulltimes jobs in Texas alone, according to a Tedx Talk in San Antonio Texas featuring speaker Tom Tunstall, a Research Director at the Institute of Economic Development.

Nationally, the gas and oil industry supported 2.1 million jobs in 2012. Energy from fracking contributed $284 billion to the gross domestic product that same year.

“OPEC has had to come to terms that we are and will be buying less oil from them,” said Tunstall. “In 2013, the US produced more oil than it imported since 1995.”

The U.S. surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia at top oil and natural gas producers in 2013. November 2014 was the first time in almost twenty years that the U.S. did not important any liquefied natural gas from their trading partners

World energy-production still uses 70 percent fossil fuels for generating electricity. Forty percent of those fossil fuels come from coal.

Tunstall suggested that while hydraulic fracking is a topic of geo-political debate, it is helping the environment by using less coal and more natural gas. Natural gas produces half the carbon dioxide of coal-fired production.

“America is leading the world in producing natural gas and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that is not an accident,” said EnergyFromShale.org

A study done by the Environmental Protection Agency reported that methane gas emission from natural gas systems fell 17 percent from 1990 to 2012, while natural gas production increased by 40 percent in that time period.

“Natural gas burns cleaner than oil, it burns a lot cleaner than goal, and we have a lot of it,” Tunstall said.

A decrease in natural gas prices has occurred due to the need in supply. Since 2009, natural gas prices have been less than half of what they were in 2008 according to NASDAQ.

The debate over hydraulic fracking has been ongoing. Environmental organizations such as The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity have held rallies and protests against the dangers of fracking.

Fracking protest in San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of nationalreview.com

“If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas,” said Allison Chin, Sierra Club president, at a anti-fracking rally in 2012.

Kern County produces 70 percent of California hydraulic fracturing. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity have called for a ban of fracking in this area, even though it has been going on for decades.

Their main case concerns the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing and the severity of the drought California is currently experiencing.

Thousands have gathered in protest throughout the state in the “Californians against fracking” campaign. A petition signed by thousands of California residents against fracking was given to Governor Jerry Brown at the beginning of this year.

“We have no direct evidence that any harm has been caused by the practice in California,” said chief deputy director Jason Marshall on behalf of Gov. Jerry Brown in response to the petition. “We believe the regulations we’ve created, atop existing well construction standards, will protect the environment.”

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