You may have heard the term “fracking” used in relation to a new source of energy, but you aren’t sure exactly what it is — or more importantly, whether fracking is good or bad. So let’s take a closer look at fracking and its pros and cons as an energy source here in the United States.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. This is not a new source of energy; rather, it is a new way of extracting natural gas out of shale rock formations located deep underground. Horizontal and vertical shafts are drilled deep into the ground that are used to pump fluids into the shale at high pressure, which fractures the shale and releases the methane gas that’s trapped in tiny pockets in the shale. The gas then flows to the surface through the vertical shafts.
The amount of natural gas extracted from shale rock via fracking has risen from almost none in 2000 to about 250 billion cubic meters in 2013. Fracking has really exploded over the past six years — only about 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas were extracted via fracking as recently as 2008. More than one-third of the natural gas that is burned in the U.S. is now extracted via fracking.
Some energy experts believe that there is enough natural gas locked in shale rock formations deep underground in the U.S. to make us not only energy independent, but a net exporter of natural gas, in the near future. (The largest reserves are found in the Green River Formation that spans parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.) Becoming less energy dependent on unstable countries in the Middle East and South America, not to mention Russia, could reap huge benefits for the U.S. in many different areas.
In addition, natural gas is a much cleaner energy source than coal, releasing far fewer carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In fact, net carbon emissions in the U.S. have actually been falling in recent years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about half of this reduction in carbon emissions is attributable to the replacement of coal burning with shale gas to produce electrical energy.
Moreover, not only is shale gas cleaner than coal, but it is also cheaper. Given these benefits and advantages — primarily the abundant sources of shale rock in the U.S., lower carbon emissions, lower cost, and the potential of the U.S. to become energy independent — some experts believe that fracking could serve as the bridge between carbon-based energy systems and new, greener energy systems in the future.
With such tangible benefits, you might be wondering why anyone would object to fracking? Well, like any process that is used to extract energy from the earth and harness it for our use, there are some unintended — and potentially dangerous — side effects with fracking.
The main concern many people have about fracking is the impact that the process could have on groundwater sources. To extract methane gas from shale rock, a toxic mixture of water, sand, lubricants and chemicals is pumped into the shale at high pressure. These chemicals include poisons to keep bacteria and other microorganisms from clogging pipes, as well as hydrochloric acid to dissolve excess cement in the pipes.
In fact, more than 650 different products containing chemicals that can potentially cause cancer have been used in the fracking process. In addition, energy companies are not required by law to disclose the chemicals, or the formulation of the mixture of chemicals, they use in fracking. This can make it hard for scientists to gauge the specific potential threats the chemicals might pose in local areas, and hard for local residents and first responders to prepare for possible drilling accidents.
Proponents of fracking say that the process is safe because shale formations lie far below the water table, thus posing minimal (if any) threat to groundwater. However, opponents point out that accidents can occur that can result in toxic chemicals making their way back up to the surface and into groundwater. These include well blowouts, backflow of fluids to the surface, leaks in the pipes, and accidents at wellheads.
In addition, the fracking process requires a tremendous volume of fresh water — up to 35 million gallons per frack well. Some fracking opponents worry that this will more rapidly deplete fresh water sources and dry up rivers and streams in some areas.
Given the potential harm that fracking can cause to the environment, it is somewhat surprising how lax current federal environmental laws are when it comes to regulating fracking. For instance, both the Safe Water Drinking Act and the Clean Water Act contain specific exceptions for fracking, which is primarily regulated at the state level. The EPA is conducting a study on the effects of fracking on groundwater, but the results are not expected until 2016.
In the meantime, energy companies are not wasting any time drilling new fracking wells in areas of the country where there are abundant shale rock formations deep underground. Until more is known about the possible effects of fracking on groundwater and the environment in general, the debate between fracking proponents and opponents will continue to rage.