What the Frack? A Fossil Fuel Boom Powered by False Promises

Could the answer to domestic energy-independence and mitigating climate change have been under our feet the whole time? Or could its rapid growth, frugal infrastructure and ignored environmental implications prove the fracking industry to be fueled by false hope?

The History and Inner Workings of Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing, or better known as just fracking, began in 1949 Kansas by Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas who was curious to find the effect of pumping high-pressure fluids in rock shale filled with oil and natural gas.

Natural gas is formed by decaying organisms put under intense heat and pressure over millions of years. This phenomenon is most commonly found in shale, making fracking widespread in states such as North Dakota, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that are rich in this material

The process of fracking begins with drilling a wellbore over a mile (up to 2500-3000 meters) underground. Once an oil and gas reserve are hit, the drill make a 90 degree turn and continues horizontally for almost another mile. Finally, a specialized “perforating gun” shoots several inch long holes into the surrounding shale rock.

3 to 4 weeks after this perforation, the actual fracking begins. Extremely high pressures of liquid are injected into the establish fracking well, causing tons of tiny fissures throughout the shale. How high pressure exactly? Levels sometimes surpassing 62,050 kilopascals, or for those of you like me who have no idea what this means, 9,000 pounds per square inch. These cracks release oil and natural gas into the well that is then pumped back up to ground level for extraction. The injected fracking fluid is composed of 90% and 10% chemical additives, such as acids, slickwater and disinfectant. These added ingredients dissolve minerals, fracture rock, and mitigate bacteria growth respectively. Sand or clay is also added to the mix to keep fissures pried open and leaking out fossil fuels.

On average, fracking wells require 3-6 million gallons of freshwater annually, which made up 0.3% of the United State’s fresh water use in 2011. While this figure may seem like a lot, it pales in comparison to the 128,000 gallons for irrigated agriculture and 143,000 gallons for thermoelectricity used per day.

After this fracking fluid has done its job, it returns to the surface, carrying with it radioactive materials, heavy metals, salts and hydrocarbons. With this liquid that has flowed back up, cleverly dubbed as “flowback”, also comes the difficult, and often controversial, task of its disposal. One of three methods is used: 1) shoot the fluid back into the earth, 2) drop it off at a wastewater treatment plant, or 3), and the most commonly chosen options, recycle this fluid through another round of fracking. While the latter options reduces water consumption, it causes flowback to become even more concentrated with carcinogenic and flammable compounds. Wells are encased with metal and cement linings to prevent hazardous chemicals from seeping into the earth. However, even a marginal leak of this laced liquid, held at extreme pressure and quantity, could contaminate an entire water supply.

Although costly and environmentally volatile, the fracking process yields thousands of cubic feet of natural gas a day, and is expected to grow by 44% by 2040.

An Economic Miracle in the US’s Mid-2000’s Recession  

In the midst of the worst economic recession the United State’s had seen since the Great Depression, the highly efficient technology and energy independence fracking provided seemed like an obvious industry booster. Natural gas and oil is stored in shale rock found abundantly throughout the nation (with 348.8 trillion cubic feet of profitable natural gas and 29 billion barrels of oil!), consequently decreasing our foreign energy reliance and domestic unemployment. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of oil wells nearly doubled, skyrocketing from 276,000 to 510,000. Fracking held true to some of its short-term promises, bumping the national unemployment rate down by 0.5% by 2012 and sparking a sharp drop in the cost of oil. Today, fracking accounts for 1.7 million US jobs and supplies our 67% of our natural gas and 50% of our oil.

Environmentally, fracking seemed like win too. Natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal does for the same amount of energy. And while fracking does release methane, this greenhouse gas only spends 12 years in earth’s atmosphere as opposed to carbon dioxide’s lifetime of several thousand years.

An Unforeseen ClusterFrack

However, like most quick-fix solutions, fracking’s benefits proved to good to be true.

Fracking’s reputation as a potential climate change mitigator was soon dispelled, given that methane traps 30 times the amount of heat as carbon dioxide. And as a consequence of america’s fracking boom, total greenhouse gas emissions rose by 13% solely in 2005.

Oil independence never came true either, seeing that the US still imports 40% of the resource. And if the price of fossil fuels were to fall too low, the cost of production would outweigh its profits, likely ending in abandoned or over-extracted wells.

But one of the largest unexpected consequences of fracking comes from “flow reversal”. As the name suggests, the action involves accidentally switching the direction of these fluids in pipelines. And since many wells are based on existing oil pipelines, infrastructure is not retrofitted to prevent disaster caused by this phenomenon. Almost 16% of hydraulic fracking wells spill each year, and while the majority of these are kept contained, an accident has the potential to cause mass destruction, and even death. Explosions caused by the high pressures and flammability of chemicals in fracking flowback has caused injuries and deaths all over the nation. Take the case of the 9,000 mile long, 76 year old Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline, which spans from Philadelphia down to the Gulf of Mexico. In April 2016, the pipeline exploded under a small Pennsylvanian town, leaving a man covered in third-degree burns and creating a 50 x 12 foot crater along with a sizeable fireball.

The fireball generated by the aftermath of Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline explosion, captured April 29, 2016.

Spills have wreaked havoc on small farmers as well. Gushing fracking flowback liquid, composed of crude oil and hazardous chemicals, has ruined agricultural land. And natural gas, methane, and some known carcinogenic gas emissions that are byproducts of fracking  contaminate air, leading to declined health and respiratory issues for surrounding ecosystem and residents.

Unfortunately, rural areas and small towns are at the highest risk for facing the blunt of fracking’s environmental implications. Hydraulic fracturing is regulated by the EPA, but the industry has notoriously been exempt from basic policy, including the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. However, based on a study done by University of Texas, Arlington, 19 heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals were found in elevated amounts in drinking water near fracking sites. Under the Trump Administration, auctioning off federal land to oil and gas companies is becoming more widespread while EPA regulation is dwindling. President Trump has even openly said that in the advent of decreased environmental regulation and pro-natural gas executive orders, “the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas, anywhere in the world, anywhere on the planet.”

While hydraulic fracturing may have initially given the impression as an environmental and economically viable energy option, its detrimental effects in just two short decades have shown this promise to be blatantly empty. Selling it as a “cleaner” or more sustainable alternative is simply a tactic used to stave off the implementation of renewables and to draw out our usage of fossil fuels for as long as possible. So be weary of fix-all solutions driven by oil and gas, and don’t be afraid to ask WTF?

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