In the US, fracking caused US gas prices to fall by 47% between 2013 and 2015. Although a key driver of the country’s economy, it’s a controversial. Scotland for example, banned it after public opposition in 2017.
But What is Fracking?
Known as hydraulic fracturing, it’s a method used to extract oil and gas trapped in densely packed rock like shale. It works by pumping large quantities of highly-pressurised water mixed with small amounts of sand and chemicals into manhole-sized holes in the ground. Fracturing the rock as it’s pumped in, gas or oil is then released and flows to the surface.
Why is it Controversial?
Although governments including the US, the UK and Poland say that fracking can be done safely without harming the environment or human health, others disagree.
As methane is a main component of natural gas, there are fears that fracking encourages global warming. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for example conducted a study which estimated that 4% of the methane produced by gas wells in Weld County, Colorado alone escapes into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of carbon emissions from 1- 3 million cars.
Air quality is also an issue. Aside from methane, fracking also produces other pollutants known to cause short-term illness, cancer, organ damage, nervous system disorders, birth defects and even death. These pollutants include benzene and particulate matter, carbon monoxide and smog.
A study looking at samples from 11 fracking sites in the US found that in 31% of samples had silica concentrations 10 times the recommended limit. Causing an incurable lung disease when inhaled known as silicosis, at these levels, even wearing respiratory equipment is insufficient to protect against inhalation.
Water pollution is another issue. This is because the chemicals and substances used in the fracking process can easily infiltrate water supplies also held underground. And this has caused real problems. Residents in Pavillion, Wyoming for example have experienced problems with their water since the 90’s when oil and gas exploration boomed in the area. It was only in 2011 when a study by Stanford confirmed that fracking was responsible.
Although how fracking causes them is somewhat a mystery, both extraction and injection of fluids underground are linked to increased seismic activity. The sizes of these vary, from relatively small quakes at 2.3 in Blackpool, England for example to large ones at magnitude 7 or more in Gazli, Uzbekistan.
To conclude, fracking pumps large quantities of water underground to extract oil and gas. It’s controversial as it has been shown to encourage global warming, damage water supplies and potentially cause earthquakes.