Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fracking: An Introduction

By Steven Aliano

There are always certain scientific practices or scientific news that come into a heavy light with media exposure. With this exposure comes an influx of questions by the uninformed public. What exactly is this practice? How effective is it? What repercussions come about after this practice is used? How does it affect me, my family, and should I view it as a good or bad idea?

This exposure defines how the public reacts to an issue and how well they can be knowledgeable of the subject to make an educated opinion as to whether or not they are for or against a practice. When you think of things such as the LHC particle accelerator or certain “green” substitutes to life that affect how much pollution is given off by the human race, people will definitely be skeptical; and, hopefully, through the internet and other such sources, they can make an educational opinion that is worthwhile for themselves.

For environmental issues, one of the biggest subjects to come up in recent years has been fracking. People often say, “What’s in a name?” and that is exactly how my own personal interest began in fracking. 

The name itself seemed to emit so much intrigue and mystery, that anyone would be interested in taking a second look and diving for further information. The name seemed to be so informal that there must be some type of controversy behind it. Also, when it comes to any type of process that is involved with petroleum or natural gas, or just any type of basic retrieval of our primary energy source, there must be something behind the name that gives it such an enigma.

Upon looking at the occasional article or internet news story on fracking, I began to realize that there’s certainly a lot more in a name. Besides the actual process itself, the effects that come from it are immense, with such problems as water contamination and other health effects, as well as the split-estate situations for landowners. However, before we get into all that, let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is fracking?

Fracking Cracks Underground Rock Formations

Fracking goes by many other names and pseudonyms, including induced hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracturing, fracing, and fraccing. Fracking is the technique used for hydraulic fracturing, which is the fracturing of rock layers by a pressurized liquid. Some of these fractures are natural, and can create natural conduits through which gas and petroleum from source rocks move to reservoir rocks. 

Fracking is done through a process by which natural gas and petroleum is extracted by using wellbores to drill into reservoir rocks deep underground. Although this technique has been given a lot of press in recent years, it is not a new concept. The first instance of fracking came in the late 1940s. As of 2010, 60% of all natural gas and petroleum has been hydraulically fractured. As of this past year, 2.5 million jobs have been performed in fracking operations worldwide, with a million in the United States.

Those for this process tout its economic benefits, as well as the individual environmental benefits of natural gas, leading to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and a reduction in toxic air pollution. 

However, those against the process point to its various environmental concerns, including contaminated groundwater, air quality, and various health effects described later. Because of these concerns, many countries outside of the United States have suspended or banned the use of fracking, although nations such as the United Kingdom have lifted their bans recently with heavy regulations and restrictions. 

Environmental Concerns

Groundwater contamination has been a major case of concern when it comes to fracking. Firstly, fracking itself uses a gigantic amount of water, between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons. The injected fluids and the returning surface fluids that are applied in fracking raise concerns over contaminated groundwater, and while the chemicals used in fracking are generally harmless, in high doses they contain carcinogens, and a couple cases of fracking being the assumed case of groundwater contamination have been reported by the EPA. 

“Produced” water is another major issue, which is the water that returns to the surface from the drilling, and contains various levels of uranium, radium, radon, and thorium. Much of this produced water is maintained by self-contained systems of management or by municipal waste water treatment plants, however, the large quantity of this wastewater, as well as the improper configuration of sewer plants, have led to a poor execution of how to treat this waste. Lastly, blown gas wells give off methane, also contaminating drinking water.

In addition to water problems, many health problems have been reported by local residents due in part to fracking procedures. The radiation exposure as well as other gases has played a huge part in the personal health effects of humans and other animals.

These carcinogenic chemicals studied on mice showed forestomach ulcers and epithelial hyperplasia, hematopoietic cell proliferation and hemosiderin pigmentation in the spleen, Kupffer cell pigmentation in the livers, and bone marrow hyperplasia, as well as statistically significant decreases in automated and manual hematocrit (Hct) values, hemoglobin (Hb) concentrations, and red blood cell (RBC) for both males and females.

In another study, an examination of 353 out of 994 fracking chemicals found over 75% of the 353 chemicals affecting the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, 52% affecting the nervous system, 40% affecting the immune system and kidney system, and 46% affected the cardiovascular system and blood. In another separate examination of airborne fracking chemicals, thirty-five chemicals affected the brain/nervous system, 33 the liver/metabolism, and 30 the endocrine system, which includes reproductive and developmental effects. The categories with the next highest numbers of effects were the immune system (28), cardiovascular/blood (27), and the sensory and respiratory systems (25 each).

Steven Aliano is a junior Communications major at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

For more information:
Graves, John H. Fracking: America's Alternative Energy Revolution. John H Graves, 2012.
Hamel, Stephanie C. Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage. Seattle, WA: Coffeetown Enterprises, 2011. .
Hillstrom, Kevin, ed. Fracking. Illustrated ed. Detroit: Lucent, 2013. .
McGraw, Seamus. The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone. New York: Random House Digital, 2012.
Obo, Okon. Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking): Procedures, Issues, and Benefits. Okon Obo, PhD, 2013.
Prud'homme, Alex. The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Ralph, Peter. Dirty Fracking Business: No More Coal Seam Gas Mining. Melbourne: Theoklesia, LLC, 2012.
Wilber, Tom. Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. Cornell UP, 2012.


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