Monthly Archives: January 2012

Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a cutting edge technique for extracting natural gas from shale. The process involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals into a shale formation at very high pressures. The objective is to fracture the rock and release the natural gas for collection. This process has allowed previously unproductive shale to become a large producer of energy.

This cartoon shows how the overall fracking process works.

There are numerous injections sites that have sprung up overnight all across the country to take advantage of the large reserves. Though fracking generates large quantities of natural gas and provides thousands of jobs, not everyone is sold on the idea. Residents in proximity to these new injections sites are expressing growing concern over the safety of fracking.

Many residents are concerned that their drinking water may become contaminated by the fracking chemicals and gas. In one study, the EPA found evidence of contamination in the drinking water of a town in Wyoming. Due to the complicated nature of subsurface geology however, occurrences at one location aren’t necessarily an indicator that it would happen at another location.

Along the same lines, fracking is being blamed for earthquakes in McDonald Ohio. Injecting high pressured water into the subsurface has been linked to earthquakes and low-level seismic activity in other situations, so it is highly possible that it was the fracking that triggered the 4.0 earthquake. This is especially likely at the injection site of McDonald because it is in close proximity to a fault line. The injected water could create changes in pressure that would cause the rocks near the fault to shift and trigger an earthquake. Though fracking can trigger seismic activity, I don’t believe that the resulting earthquake would be strong enough to be damaging. And even though seismic activity is occurring at this location, it doesn’t mean that it would cause earthquakes in other locations.

The solution to these issues and the others surrounding fracking may be to investigate the process and its effects in greater detail before the process becomes the more prevalent. Or perhaps, going to the extreme measure of breaking rock with high pressure water and chemicals is not the direction energy should be moving. Instead of exploiting the environment for every last bit of fossil fuel, our directions could be refocused on finding new and more sustainable resources. If there are severe environmental complications caused by fracking, the companies responsible may end up paying more money in damages than it would have cost to explore a renewable source of energy.