What is Fracking?
We need fossil fuels in order to live a normal life. Powering our cars, heating our homes and lighting our streets throughout the night are only a few ways in which we use power that we derive from natural gas, petroleum and coal – the main fossil fuels. We have been gathering these fossil fuels for many years, but we are always trying to find better, more efficient ways of getting as much out of the fossil fuels that naturally exist in and around the world.
Fracking is one method that we are currently using in order to gain access to natural gas and oil (petroleum) buried miles and miles beneath the Earth’s surface. During this process, a huge drill is used to pass through many layers of earth and rock that lie between us as the natural gas.
A special water mixture is then pumped directly at the rock miles below in order to release the gas it contains. The mixture – which is primarily water, sand and certain chemicals – are forced into the rock (at extremely high pressures) in order to force the gas out to where we can collect it. The drill can be driven into the earth either vertically or horizontally.
Fracking first began as an experiment in 1947 and has been used commercially for 65 years. It is the process of drilling down into the earth, and a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is directed at the rocks at high pressures to fracture the shale rocks to release the natural gas inside. According to this, there are more than 500,000 active natural gas wells in the US. Hydraulic fracking produces several barrels of gas a day but at the cost of numerous environmental, health and safety hazards.
Read here about the pros and cons of fracking.
According to Wikipedia,
“Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, fracing, hydrofracking, fraccing, frac’ing, and hydrofracturing, is a well stimulation technique involving the fracturing of bedrock formations by a pressurized liquid. The process involves the high-pressure injection of ‘fracking fluid’ (primarily water, containing sand or other proppants suspended with the aid of thickening agents) into a wellbore to create cracks in the deep-rock formations through which natural gas, petroleum, and brine will flow more freely. When the hydraulic pressure is removed from the well, small grains of hydraulic fracturing proppants (either sand or aluminium oxide) hold the fractures open.”
The process of fracking can help us improve access to gas that we have already started to harvest or can help us get to new, previously unknown deposits of natural gas even if they are miles below the surface of the Earth. The term ‘fracking’ comes from a shortening of ‘hydraulic fracturing,’ referring to the fracturing of the rock that is broken apart by the high pressured water mix. Unfortunately, however, lots of people are starting to worry that fracking is having a negative impact on the environment.
- What is the Process of Fracking?
- How Does Fracking Work?
- Why Is Fracking Bad?
What is the Process of Fracking?
Once natural gas (also known as ‘shale gas’) has been found, measures can start being taken to set up the fracking process to access the essential fossil fuel, most commonly used for cooking and heating. If the natural gas is not too far below the surface, other extraction methods can be used and may even be preferred.
However, since we are starting to run out of shale gas deposits closer to the surface, we are starting to try and find ways to access the many deposits that exist many thousands of feet into the Earth. Fracking is now one of the preferred methods of extraction because it can get to pockets and deposits of natural gas with relative ease.
If not for fracking, we may start to run out of shale gas even quicker than first predicted. The process of fracking proceeds in a number of steps after the deposits deep inside the Earth has been found:
1. Firstly, a well is created by drilling directly into the earth. Measurements will have already been taking to establish exactly where the natural gas is, and the drill will dig down to this exact level, whether the gas is being drilled out vertically or horizontally. If it is being drilled out horizontally, the drill is turned ninety degrees horizontally and then continues towards the natural deposit. These wells can be dug up to many thousands of feet, which means that we can access a lot more natural gas than before, as other natural gas wells have, as yet, not been able to get so deep.
2. Next, the mix of water, various chemicals (although most companies do not actually specify what these chemicals are exactly) and sand is pumped through the well towards the deposit of natural gas. It is pumped at high pressures so that it can break through the rocks containing the gas, allowing it to escape. It can take as much as five million gallons of water for each natural gas well, which can be as many as 100 times more than the other extraction methods that have been used before.
3. As the natural gas gets through the rocks that have been broken by the high-pressure water mix, it steadily rises up towards the surface. From here, we are able to collect it ready to be processed, refined and then distributed to those who need it.
4. The water that has been pumped into the Earth, however, has to come back out. This wastewater (which is also referred to as ‘flowback water’) comes back towards the surface after all the natural gas has been extracted. In some places, this water is then recollected when it reaches the surface.
5. The water that has been used in the process of fracking is then stored in steel tanks to be injected into oil and gas waste wells for a long period of time without harming the environment. Because of the chemicals used added to this water, it cannot simply be returned to the sea or into other waterways.
In the US, safe hydraulic fracturing is letting them tap vast deposits of oil and natural gas that were locked away in tight rock formations. Hydraulic fracturing will be used in the next few decades to access difficult to reach areas for oil and gas. The use of fracking has ensured gas security to the US and Canada for another 100 years. It has boosted domestic oil and gas production and has brought down gas prices. According to US EIA, the U.S. is the leading producer of natural gas in the world, and because of fracking, it could become the leading oil producer in the world by 2015.
How Does Fracking Work?
Why is fracking so effective at getting natural gas out of the ground ready for us to use to heat our homes and cook our food? Unlike previous methods of natural gas extraction, fracking allows us to dig down many hundreds of feet into the ground, which means that we can get access to many more natural deposits of shale gas that have previously been beyond our reach. Fracking is very effective, and there are a number of details that explain why it is fast becoming a favored way of extracting natural gas from the ground.
1. Fracking works so effectively and efficiently because drilling into the ground allows us to access natural gas deposits thousands of feet from the surface. This means that we can inject the rocks that contain natural gas with the mixture of water, sand and chemicals (split 90%, 9.5% and 0.5%, respectively) directly and at full pressure.
2. Injecting the water mixture at high pressures into the rock is absolutely essential, as it is this that causes the tiny fissures in the rocks. This pressure has to be extremely well controlled; otherwise, a lot of things could go wrong. Once these fissures have been created, however small they are, they allow the gas to flow smoothly from the natural deposit deep in the ground straight to the surface.
3. The chemicals and sand that are added to the water in order to actually hold open the fissures that are created by the high-pressure water. Without these additives, the fissures would very quickly close, trapping the gas once again and make it impossible to access.
4. Fracking takes place along the entire length of the well that has been drilled. This allows us to access as much natural gas as possible, making the process a lot more cost-effective and efficient. This means that we can get access to even the biggest natural gas deposits without having to make multiple drill holes in the ground.
5. Fracking is particularly effective at accessing what is referred to as ‘tight gas.’ This is the gas that is actually trapped inside shale rock formations, and that is, therefore, a lot more difficult to access with normal shale gas extraction techniques.
Why Is Fracking Bad?
Cough, shortness of breath and wheezing are the most common complaints of residents living near fracked wells. Toxic gases like benzene are released from the rock by fracking. Similarly, a toxic waste brew of water and chemicals is often stored in open pits, releasing volatile organic compounds into the air. These noxious chemicals and particulates are also released by the diesel-powered pumps used to inject the water. Significant associations between proximity to active fracking operations and various combinations of migraine headaches, chronic rhinosinusitis and fatigue symptoms were found statistically.
Fracking chemicals are harmful to pregnant women and their developing babies. West Virginia researchers found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in surface waters near wastewater disposal sites, and these types of chemicals can hurt the developing fetus even when present at very low concentrations.
2. It releases harmful compounds in the air
Fracking wells release compounds into the air, such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and n-hexane; long-term exposure to these has been linked to birth defects, neurological problems, blood disorders and cancer.
One of the main pollutants released in the fracking process is methane. Methane is a major greenhouse gas. Its global warming potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide on a 20-year horizon and 25 times on a 100-year horizon.
3. It affects Water Supply and Quality
The fracking process uses billions of gallons of water each year. According to the EPA, the median volume of water consumed is 1.5 million gallons per well on a local level. This consumption reduces the amount of freshwater available to nearby residents, particularly in areas where water availability is low.
When water is not available to fracking sites locally, it is transported from other regions, ultimately drawing down available water from lakes and rivers across the country. In arid places like the West, this could even mean less water for fish and wildlife.
In fracking, each well produces millions of gallons of toxic fluid containing not only the added chemicals but other naturally occurring radioactive material, liquid hydrocarbons, brine water and heavy metals. Fissures created by the fracking process can also create underground pathways for gases, chemicals and radioactive material.
As chemicals used in the fracking process might leak back into local water supplies, this may also cause water contamination. In a 2015 report, the EPA documented 151 spills of the hydraulic fracturing fluid. In thirteen of those cases, the spill reached surface water supplies.
Additionally, billions of gallons of wastewater is generated from fracking, only small portions of which are re-used in the fracking process. The majority of wastewater 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.
4. It puts workers at risk
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has found that workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable silica during hydraulic fracturing. These findings were shared after NIOSH studied 116 full-shift air samples at 11 hydraulic fracturing sites in five states.
5. Local residents suffer
In addition to fracking’s global impact, it causes harmful effects to those living near extraction sites. A host of ancillary components released at well sites can lead to health problems such as irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth and throat.
Local air pollution can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions. Regionally, fracking-related processes release nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, forming smog that can deprive workers and local residents of clean air.
6. It causes earthquakes
Fracking is believed to be the cause of Oklahoma’s strongest recorded quake in 2011 and more than 180 tremors in Texas between 2008 and 2009. Fracking is being investigated as the cause as the injection wells used in the storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater can cause earthquakes.
Two 2015 studies suggested that hidden faults beneath the surface may explain earthquakes in fracking zones; a 2016 study suggested that one way to calm the shaking was to limit the amount of wastewater pumped into wells deep underground.
7. Other Environmental Concerns
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. Hydraulic fracturing operations are already industrializing wild and rural landscapes and putting agricultural and recreational economies at risk.