What the Frack

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

What exactly is fracking and do the facts support the opposition against it?

by Jennie Wood

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Fracking was all over the news in the United States throughout 2014. In Ohio, officials began exploring the possibility that oil and gas wells used for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Poland Township were the cause of two nearby earthquakes. In Colorado, strict air pollution rules were approved such as requiring oil and gas companies to regularly monitor and repair leaks of gases that could affect the environment. ICF International, a consulting firm, released a study that if the U.S. were to adopt the same air pollution rules nationwide that Colorado now required, the oil and gas industry's methane emissions would be cut up to 40%, saving the nation's economy more than $100 million per year.

Meanwhile, protesters throughout Europe have come out strongly against it with demonstrators blocking drilling sites in several countries. Fracking has been banned in Bulgaria and France. What exactly is fracking? Does scientific research back up the bad rap fracking has received?

What is Fracking Exactly?

Fracking is the shortened version of the term hydraulic fracturing. It is a process used to open and widen rocks below the earth's surface by injecting a mixture of liquids and chemicals at a high level of pressure. The fact that the process is used to extract oil or natural gas has sparked much debate and controversy.

Oil and gas industry representatives maintain that fracking is just one part of the production process, that fracking and drilling are not the same thing. However, to environmentalists, industry critics, and protestors drilling and fracking are the same thing.

The Debate

A Duke University study released in May 2011 provided evidence that gas drilling causes methane gas to leak into water and, in some cases, homes. The study pointed out that the methane contamination was not caused by the chemicals being injected down the wells, but by the poor construction of the wells. Therefore, the contamination came from the process of drilling.

An early 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study discussed possible evidence of water contamination, but the discussion was omitted in its final report. Since then the EPA has narrowed its scope in researching the issue, focusing only on the process of fracking and not drilling, casing or above ground conditions. In 2014, the EPA has a study set to be released on fracking's impact on drinking water, but the study's focus has been limited to the process of hydraulic fracturing and not the other factors (drilling, casing, etc.) involved.

A Middle Ground

In April 2013, Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, an energy and environmental policy firm, spoke at the University of Chicago about how the U.S. could use fracking safely and productively. Harvey pointed out steps the U.S. needed to take right now. "These are the things you must do if you want natural gas to be a bridge to the future. These things don't cost that much money, but they involve a different approach than just, 'let's go get the hydrocarbons out of the ground."

Harvey, who served as an energy advisor to President Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, listed five steps needed to use the process of fracking safely and successfully:

    1. Control Methane Leaks
    2. Use Gas to Push Out Coal, Not Renewables
    3. Adopt Strong Well Standards
    4. Prevent Surface Pollution
    5. Zone Gas Fields to Avoid Ecological Damage

During his speech, Harvey warned, "In every environmental story that I know, not controlling your behavior at the outset has been incredibly costly." With outlines like Harvey's to follow and protests over fracking continuing, perhaps the gas and oil industry will implement the regulations needed to make sure that fracking and all the processes involved with it are safe for the environment and not counter-productive.

Source: energyinnovation.org, Environmental Protection Agency, The New York Times
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