Fracking, which is the shortened name for hydraulic fracturing, is a mechanical process advanced in the 1950s. Halliburton was the first petroleum company to experimentally try fracking, once in Oklahoma and in Texas. Since those days, it has been an enduring staple of retrieving hard to reach oil deposits.
Fracking works by further fracturing natural fissures in a rock layer. This is done by injecting pressurized fracking fluids which are a mixture of mostly 90% water, and often containing many different chemicals like sodium chloride, acids, ethylene glycol, borate salts, among others. This usually constitutes about 0.5% of fracking fluids. The remaining 9.5% contains sand, which is used as a corrosive to wear away fractures and make them larger. Many people that reside around fracking activities are worried that the chemicals may leak into the groundwater, contaminating drinking water, and poisoning natural areas used by animals. More research is needed to substantiate these claims, although they are valid and should not be dismissed out of emotional response or partisan stances.
Fracking begins with a hole drilled into the reservoir rock formations by a wellbore. Then, the fracking fluid is injected along the hole at a high pressure – this pressurized fluid creates new channels in the rock along preexisting veins or dikes. This makes fracking’s goal easier and more quickly done – the extraction of fossil fuels, especially natural gas. To prevent the channels from collapsing, and to maintain their width, a fracking “proppant” is then injected. Proppant is any material, typically sand or sometimes ceramic grains, that prevent the vein from closing.
Concerns are raised about what consequences fracking may have on the environment. There is a potential for ground water to become contaminated with methane. This has happened in 2011 in Pennsylvania and New York. This can present an explosion hazard, and was made famous with images of flammable water running from household faucets in the area. However, there is very little known at this point about cause and effect. The best course to take in this case is to enforce the use of the industry’s best practices to minimize any possible effects, while funding more research until they are better understood.
Another concern is that fracking may indeed actually cause some minor earthquakes or tremors to occur. This has been confirmed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). There are also concerns regarding the emission of particulate matters, as well as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and the dreaded carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. This emissions are usually associated with the combustion of natural gas. In areas where natural gas use is higher, higher ambient concentrations of Volatile Organic Compounds were present. This is especially a concern for the fracking and natural gas consuming communities.
Because of the environmental, social, and health concerns, fracking in many countries has been suspended or banned while more research is devoted to finding out the short and long term effects of fracking.