Fracking, particularly horizontal fracking, is a highly controversial issue in the world of energy procurement. Proponents claim the process is cost efficient and minimally invasive to the environment and communities surrounding drilling sites. The opponents discredit this claim and go so far as to say the economic impact and environmental damage are much greater than any measure of cost savings stemming from the use of fracking to source natural gas.
What is Fracking
Obtaining natural gas and oil from limestone, sandstone, and shale deposits located thousands of feet deep underground is achieved through a process of injecting sand, water, and chemicals at high volumes and high pressure directly into drill sites; otherwise known as hydraulic fracking.
There are two types of hydraulic fracking in use today; vertical and horizontal. While the less controversial vertical fracking has been around since the early 1940s when drillers used small explosives or pressurized water to break underground rock formations, the fracking version which has stirred so much debate recently is horizontal fracking.
Horizontal fracking, in use since the 1990s, actually uses the same process as vertical fracking during its initial stages of a new drill site in that a vertical shaft is drilled into the ground. Horizontal fracking begins when, at a predetermined depth, a horizontal shaft is begun. It is this directional shaft that provides access to the thin, horizontal shale layers housing previously unreachable gas.
But horizontal fracking is not as basic as drilling a vertical shaft followed by a horizontal shaft which magically releases gas to the surface. Many horizontal fracking sites use millions of gallons of water and several acres of land per drill pad. A chemical mixture accompanies the water and dissolves minerals and kills bacteria that could otherwise clog well ports. Additionally, sand is pumped into the fractures to help keep them propped open while the natural gas is extracted.
Pros and Cons of Fracking
The principle focus for adversaries of horizontal fracking is the environmental impact fracking sites have on the water table. The use of harsh chemicals such as detergents, acids, and poisons that are not regulated by federal law can seep into drinking water affecting the human populous as well as affecting wildlife, livestock, and vegetation. Opponents have also voiced uneasiness with potential industrial accidents and harmful waste water run-off. Executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council, John McFadden, opines that:
Not only are we going to go out there and frack the gas out, but we aren’t going to have much regulatory oversight, which is bad news for Tennessee’s groundwater, our drinking water, and our rivers and streams. It is a literally a chemical soup they are pushing down there to get this stuff out. (2013, June 2)
A secondary concern is the relationship between horizontal fracking and reported earthquakes near drill sites. While many of these earthquakes are relatively small, registering around 2 on the Richter scale, the potential exists that larger earthquakes could eventually occur as a result of this invasive technique.
Those in favor of fracking are quick to point out there have been fewer than ten confirmed fracture-induced earthquakes in the tens of thousands of wells drilled throughout the United States and not one of those cause structural damage of any kind.
In regards to water concerns, proponents argue that water is only subjected to contamination when the drilling depth is shallow and within the water table zone. Since the over-riding majority of extraction effort occurs thousands of feet below the water table, water contamination is really no issue at all they claim. A recent water quality study of 200 private wells in Pennsylvania supports this position in revealing that 99.5% of the wells received no negative impact from local fracking operations.
Leah Dundon, an environmental lawyer specializing in gas company operations states:
Hydraulic fracturing has been repeatedly studied by many governmental and regulatory officials and academic institutions and these studies have repeatedly confirmed that pumping fluids into the subsurface as part of the hydraulic fracturing process does not present any risk to drinking water aquifers. (2013, June 2)
Although one Wyoming location did report water table contamination near a deep drill site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s preliminary determination is that fracking fluids uncharacteristically leached upward into the drinking supplies.
Property rights have also come into question surrounding horizontal fracking. Instances of mineral rights and land rights controversies have arisen because horizontal drilling may pass directly beneath real estate owned by someone who has not granted the gas company access to that ground.
Local tourism can be adversely affected as a result of unsightly equipment and hazardous chemical supplies being transported through communities near drill sites. Yet the local tax revenue may increase from higher paying jobs, increased employment, and other revenue incentives offered by the gas company of the drill site. Locals may contend property values will decline or their conditioned way-of-life will decrease. But Randy Albert, chief operating officer CONSOL Energy (a major Appalachia natural gas producer) contends that “We want to respect the communities we live in. Our people live in the same communities. They are never going to do anything to harm themselves or their family or their children.” (2013, June 2)
On a national scale the United States has not followed France and Bulgaria, countries with the largest shale-gas reserves in Europe, in a total ban on fracking. But Vermont has taken the initiative to ban all fracking operations within its borders. The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) has requested a moratorium of new deep-shale hydraulic fracturing in Ohio pending the completion of public health risk assessments and the implementation of regulatory safeguards. The OEC insists that systems need to be created to protect local communities from risks associated with fracking and to compensate those communities that may encounter adverse issues from fracking operations. Texas and Louisiana remain positioned to oppose any national ban.
Natural gas is a clean and efficient fuel and it shares none of the negatives associated with crude and coal, except that a byproduct is carbon dioxide. Since the cost of generating electricity with natural gas has been reduced to that of coal – with fewer carbon emissions and no mercury byproduct, fracking has essentially slowed the effects of global warming associated with carbon dioxide and reduced the mercury contamination in the nation’s waters and soil. Furthermore, natural gas plants can be built for lower costs than many other fuel plants and are relatively easy to design in comparison.
The United States is blessed with large quantities of natural gas. In the Pennsylvania Marcellus shale reserve alone it is estimated that over 400 trillion cubic feet of gas exists. That equates to approximately 50 homes being powered for 50 years at today’s consumption rates.
The abundance of natural gas, the reduction in greenhouse gases, and the relatively low financial considerations of obtaining and distributing natural gas make it an economically viable global fuel source. Such factors make fracking a lucrative financial hedge – but at what environmental cost?
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Pros and Cons of fracking (2013, February 8). Retrieved from
State’s oversight of fracking raises concerns (2013, June 2). Retrieved from
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The Pros and Cons of fracking (2013, May 6). Retrieved from