How Does Fracking Affect the Environment?

Fracking can negatively impact air and water quality in fracked areas

The U.S. natural gas industry has enjoyed record levels of production in recent years. In 2018, the U.S. became the top producer of oil and natural gas in the world, even beating Saudi Arabia. Although gas production experienced a slight dip at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, by the end of 2021 natural gas drilling once again reached record highs.

This natural gas boom is largely thanks to hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, an extraction process that combines chemicals (often toxic ones) with large amounts of water and sand at high pressure to shatter the earth and rocks. Fracking is controversial because of the number of natural resources it uses, and the negative effects it can have on the air and water quality of the fracked areas.

Key Takeaways

  • Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process that uses high-pressure fluid injections to shatter rock formations and extract natural gas.
  • Fracking has been blamed for leaking millions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • Fracking is also associated with other airborne hydrocarbons that can cause health and respiratory issues.
  • Fracking uses large amounts of water, which can become contaminated and affect local groundwater.
  • Moreover, due to the high pressures involved, fracking is also associated with increased seismic activity.


Fracking and Air Quality

One of the main pollutants released in the fracking process is methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Research indicates the U.S. oil and gas industry emits 16.9 million metric tons of methane every year, according to the International Energy Agency. Some of this methane is inadvertently leaked through faulty equipment, or deliberately vented into the atmosphere between extractions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the U.S. accounts for more methane emissions than 164 countries combined.

In addition to methane, fracking also releases toxic compounds such as nitrogen oxides, benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and other hydrocarbons, forming smog and ozone that can cause health problems to those living nearby. Local air pollution can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Fracking fluid is a mix of water, chemicals, and solid particles used to penetrate and fracture underground rock. The EPA has identified over a thousand different chemicals that have been used in fracking fluid, and many are considered harmful to human health. Other ingredients are considered trade secrets and are not revealed to the public.

Fracking and Water Quality

Fracking uses large amounts of water and releases toxic chemicals into the surrounding water table. Each well consumes a median of 1.5 million gallons, according to the EPA, adding up to billions of gallons nationwide every year. Not only does this reduce the amount of water available for drinking and irrigation, but it also threatens to pollute local sources with contaminated wastewater.

The byproduct of fracking's water consumption is billions of gallons of wastewater that may be contaminated by petrochemicals. The majority is injected into underground wells, and what isn't injected is transported for treatment. The EPA highlights potential leakage from wastewater storage pits, or accidental releases during transport, as risks to drinking water supplies.

Fracking and Earth and Soil Quality

In addition to air and water pollution, fracking can have long-term effects on the soil and surrounding vegetation. The high salinity of wastewater spills can reduce the soil's ability to support plant life.

Fracking has also been blamed for seismic activity. Following the boom of hydraulic fracturing, the number of tremors has risen dramatically, especially in areas with frequent drilling. Following the completion of drilling operations, the resultant waste fluids are often disposed by injecting them into deep wells, at pressures high enough to cause damaging earthquakes. The largest earthquake attributed to wastewater disposal was an M5.8 Earthquake near Pawnee, Oklahoma.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Fracking?

Fracking is an inexpensive way to extract oil or natural gas through impermeable rock that cannot be reached through conventional drilling. However, fracking requires injecting large volumes of water, that can become contaminated and affect local soil and water supplies. It also releases large quantities of methane and air pollutants that can cause health problems and climate change. However, natural gas produces much less pollution than coal, the leading competitor to natural gas in the United States.

What Are the Alternatives to Fracking?

In addition to more traditional forms of drilling, petroleum companies are also developing alternatives such as non-hydraulic fracturing that can penetrate rock without creating large volumes of wastewater. Moreover, renewable energies such as wind and solar power can be used to generate electricity without contributing to climate change.

What Percentage of US Oil Comes From Fracking?

About 95% of new wells are developed through hydraulic fracturing, according to the American Petroleum Institute. These wells produce about two-thirds of U.S. natural gas and about half of the country's crude oil.

The Bottom Line

Even though fracking has the potential to provide more oil and gas resources to consumers, the process of extraction has long-lasting impacts on the surrounding environment. Air pollution and water contamination due to the toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are the greatest concerns within fracking sites, while the need for wastewater disposal and shrinking water supplies are also pressing issues directly related to the procedure.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "The U.S. Leads Global Petroleum and Natural Gas Production With Record Growth in 2018."

  2. Energy Information Administration. "US Dry Natural Gas Production."

  3. International Energy Agency. "Methane Tracker Data Explorer."

  4. Environmental Protection Agency. "US to Sharply Cut Methane Pollution that Threatens the Climate and Public Health."

  5. Natural Resources Defense Council. "Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution From Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities," Pages 4-5.

  6. Natural Resources Defense Council. "Fracking 101."

  7. Environmental Protection Agency. "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources," Page ES-9.

  8. Environmental Protection Agency. "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources," Page ES-8.

  9. Environmental Protection Agency. "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources," Page ES-19.

  10. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. "Salting the Earth: The Environmental Impact of Oil and Gas Wastewater Spills."

  11. US Geological Survey. "Does the Production of Oil and Gas from Shales Cause Earthquakes? If so, How Are the Earthquakes Related to These Operations?"

  12. Yale Climate Connections. "Pros and Cons of Fracking."

  13. American Petroleum Institute. "Hydraulic Fracturing."

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