Fracking in the United States: 10 Key Questions
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is spreading across the United States. But what is fracking, really? And what risks does it pose to our health and environment? Why do we believe fracking is so risky for our water, air, wildlife and climate that it should be banned?
1. What is fracking?
Fracking is a method of oil and gas production that involves blasting huge amounts of water — mixed with sand and toxic chemicals — under high pressure deep into the earth. Fracking breaks up rock formations to allow oil and gas extraction. It also pollutes our air, water and climate and endangers wildlife and human health.
Fracking has been documented in more than 30 U.S. states and is particularly widespread in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. And it’s expanding into new areas, making states like California, New Mexico and Nevada increasingly threatened by a potential fracking boom.
2. How does fracking contaminate our water?
Fracking requires an enormous amount of water — as much as 5 million gallons per well. It routinely employs numerous toxic chemicals, including methanol, benzene, naphthalene and trimethylbenzene.
About 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, according to scientists with the Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Evidence is mounting throughout the country that these chemicals are making their way into aquifers and drinking water.
Water quality can also be threatened by methane contamination tied to drilling and the fracturing of rock formations. This problem has been highlighted by footage of people in fracked areas accidentally setting fire to methane-laced water from kitchen faucets. Water pollution from fracking can happen in variety of ways, including through surface spills and well casing failures. Such accidents are disturbingly common. A fracking boom in North Dakota, for example, has led to thousands of accidental releases of oil, waste water and other fluids, according to a ProPublica investigation.
Fracking can also expose people to harm from lead, arsenic and radioactivity brought back to the surface of the land with fracking flowback fluid. In fact, fracking waste water is so dangerous that it can’t be reused for other purposes. The water we use for fracking is permanently removed from our water supply — a serious problem, especially in western states, where water is an extremely precious resource.
3. How does fracking pollute our air?
Fracking can release dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene and xylene. It can also increase ground-level ozone, a key risk factor for asthma and other respiratory illness. The pollutants in fracking water and flowback fluid can enter our air when waste water is dumped into pits and then evaporates. Air pollution caused by fracking may contribute to health problems in people living near natural gas drilling sites, according to a study by researchers with the Colorado School of Public Health.
4. How does fracking worsen climate change?
Fracking often releases large amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that traps heat at least 87 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Fracked shale gas wells, for example, may have methane leakage rates of as high as 9 percent. Studies have shown that leakage rates of more than about 3 percent would make burning natural gas in a power plant even worse for the climate than burning coal.
Fracking also allows access to huge fossil fuel deposits that were once beyond the reach of drilling. In California, for example, oil companies are interested in using fracking and other dangerously extreme fossil fuel extraction methods in the Monterey Shale. This geological formation under the San Joaquin and the Los Angeles basins may hold a large amount of extraordinarily dirty, carbon intensive oil. Oil fracking in North Dakota is already yielding about half a million barrels of oil a day.
We need to leave 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to have a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. We simply cannot afford to use dangerous techniques like fracking to keep extracting more oil and gas.
5. Does fracking cause earthquakes?
There are reports from British Columbia and the United Kingdom that fracking has caused small earthquakes, so there is some risk from fracking itself. The greater problem, however, is earthquakes induced when the wastewater from fracking is disposed of in injection wells. A recent study points to underground injection as a key factor in a 5.7 quake outside of Prague, Oklahoma, that did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to local homes. Scientists also concluded that a series of earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio, were induced by underground wastewater injection.
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States With Fracking See Surge In Earthquake Activity
States where hydraulic fracturing is taking place have seen a surge in earthquake activity, raising suspicions that the unconventional drilling method could be to blame, especially the wells where the industry disposes of its wastewater.
Fracking generates vast amounts of wastewater, far more than traditional drilling methods. The water is pumped into injection wells, which send the waste thousands of feet underground. No one knows for certain exactly what happens to the liquids after that. Scientists wonder whether they could trigger quakes by increasing underground pressures and lubricating faults.
Oklahoma has recorded nearly 250 small-to-medium earthquakes since January, according to statistics kept by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s close to half of all the magnitude 3 or higher earthquakes recorded this year in the continental United States.
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The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented oil and gas drilling rush—brought on by a controversial technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Along with this fracking-enabled rush have come troubling reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, industrial disasters and explosions.
Earthjustice fights fracking…in the courts, in the legislature, and in communities across the country. And we win.
Every day we are keeping fracking out of places where it doesn’t belong, working to protect people impacted by this dangerous practice, and challenging fracked oil and gas infrastructure projects that will lock us into a future dependent on fossil fuels.
Please join with us to fight fracking! Urge EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and prevent dirty energy companies from splitting apart our earth to squeeze out profits at the expense of public health.
Provide Real Protection From Fracking
Dear EPA Administrator McCarthy,
Fracking by energy companies is poisoning our air and water, and the irreversible consequences will be felt for decades after the companies are gone.
As an environmentally-concerned individual, I’m asking you to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and use your resources to prevent dirty energy companies from splitting apart our earth to squeeze out profits at the expense of public health.
I’m counting on you to ensure that our air, water, and the lands we love are protected.