Updated: Jan 5, 2021
In both the debates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have sought to portray themselves as friends of fracking, touting the jobs that it gives and the resources it provides. However, they failed to mention how dangerous fracking is to the environment and the money and power it gives to the fossil fuel industry. So the question remains: can fracking exist in a green world?
Fracking has been practiced since the Industrial Revolution, dating back to 1862. However, it was not until the early 21st century that it became widely practiced, mainly due to the invention of a more efficient fracturing fluid called slickwater, and its pairing with horizontal drilling, allowing wells to reach deeper oil and gas reserves. However, fracking has played a part in both the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, with both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pledging to support fracking, despite their strong environmental agendas.
What Fracking is and How it Works
Fracking allows oil and natural gas to be extracted from impermeable rock ("tight rock"), such as shale. Fracking is hydraulic, meaning that it involves blasting fluid, such as slickwater, into the earth to crack tight rock so that oil and natural gas can then be extracted. This is done by drilling a long well deep into the earth, either vertically or at an angle. Then, when the well nears the tight rock formation, the drilling changes to be horizontal, extending as much as a few thousand feet. Casings, which are steel pipes, are inserted into the well with small holes in the side. Typically, the space between the casing and the rock is filled with cement. Then, fracking fluid is pumped into the ground to create new or expand on previous fractures in the rock. As a result, oil and gas can flow to the surface.
The slickwater used for fracking is made of 97% water, but it also contains chemical additives and proppants. The different chemicals used in fracking relate to the purpose they serve, namely the type of rock that is being drilled into. While chemicals like biocides eliminate bacteria, acids dissolve minerals to increase flow capabilities. Also, corrosion inhibitors are used to protect the equipment and gelling agents help carry proppants. Here is a list of common additives compiled by Judy Stone, a health expert and Forbes writer:
These chemicals are combined with the slickwater in fracking. Between 2005 and 2013, 1,084 different chemicals were identified by the EPA as in use in fracking materials, the majority of which are considered hazardous to human health. However, what is just as frightening as the health problems seen in column five (which will be discussed in more detail later) — or even more so — is that not all chemicals in slickwater have to be reported. Under many state reporting laws, there are exclusions for "confidential business information" (CBI), relating to trade secrets. CBI allows companies to not report chemicals that are considered to be trade secrets. However, this gives companies the ability to hide toxic chemicals from public view. A review of over 39,000 chemical disclosure forms from January 2011 to the end of February 2013 found that more than 11% of all chemicals are registered as CBI, and more than 70% of forms were submitted with at least one chemical as CBI.
Proppants are small, solid particles that keep the fractures in rock formations open even after the pressure subsides. "Frac" sand is the industry's favorite, made of sand with high-purity quartz. Proppants require many trucks to be transported to a mining operation. A single well operation can truck in thousands of tons of frac sand.
Fracking and Health
To skip to where the effects of fracking on climate change are discussed, go to the next section.
Fracking operations risk polluting drinking water through many different dangerous activities. The first such activity is the risk of fluid leaks. Fluid leaks can occur at any point during the fracking process and can have detrimental effects on the surrounding environment. These leaks, which can occur due to both human or equipment error, occurred 151 times across just 11 states between the years 2006 and 2012, according to an EPA report. Nearly 10% of those spills (ranging from 28 to 7,350 gallons) ended up in bodies of water, often sources of drinking water. The EPA is also equally concerned about the uncertainty on how close many leaks occur to underground aquifers, posing a major health threat to drinking water, as seen in the table above. The effects of these chemical additives range from irritation, headache, and dizziness, all the way to blindness, nerve damage, poison, and death. Fracking operations can also release dangerous chemicals from the tight rock. For instance, radon can cause carcinogens, especially lung cancer, while toluene can cause headaches, neurotoxicity, and liver and blood damage.
Furthermore, the oil and gas industry generates billions of gallons of wastewater. The wastewater is made up of flowback — the used fracking fuel returning to the surface — and the aforementioned natural contaminants released from the fracking processes. This wastewater can enter the environment in various ways, such as leaks in storage pits or transportation pipelines, or contaminants from treatment plants. In addition, the recycling of wastewater provides a host of new problems, as they generate new waste products (including TENORM — Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material), and are hard to treat when companies do not disclose the chemical compositions.
Besides water pollution, there are other types of pollution caused by fracking. Air pollution is caused by both intentional venting and accidental leaking of gases throughout the entire fracking process, exacerbating and accelerating climate change-induced smog. According to the NRDC, hydraulic fracturing releases "benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene; fine particulate matter (PM2.5); hydrogen sulfide; silica dust; and nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which produce smog when combined." In rural northeastern Utah, research showed the amount of smog annually was equivalent to the pollution from 100 million cars. This contaminated air has many detrimental long-term and short-term effects on people, including birth defects, cancer, respiratory problems, neurological problems, cardiovascular damages, hormonal disruptions, and early death.
Exacerbating Climate Change
Fracking is a major contributor to climate change. During the venting process, methane is released into the environment. Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas, lasting for up to one hundred years. Indeed, a 2019 study by Cornell University found that the increase in methane in the 21st century (according to a NASA study, methane emissions were 9% higher in the 2008-2017 decade than in the previous decade) was in large part due to the fracking boom. Furthermore, the many trucks required to assemble the equipment and gather the proppants (such as frac oil) release a lot of carbon dioxide and put stress on already-stressed infrastructure.
The Economics of Fracking
Fracking does have a positive economic benefit on local communities. A study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) found that local communities experience a 6% increase in average income due to rising wages and a 10% increase in employment. However, there is a 6% increase in housing prices as well. According to the study, the benefits of fracking outweigh the costs, with benefits totaling $1,200 to $1,900 per year while costs are $1,000 to $1,600 per year. These benefits do not include the housing price increase. However, this economic study does not take into account the negative health and environmental effects associated with fracking, as discussed previously. Therefore, one cannot purely look at the economical benefits of fracking to determine its place in society.
Fracking in Politics
Fracking has played a key role in politics recently. After Joe Biden's Democratic nomination, he has pledged to keep fracking open. That is because the American people — and politicians — look at the short-term economic effects, rather at the long-term holistic impacts that plague the U.S. President Trump's proclamation of "crystal-clear water" and "the cleanest air" during Thursday's debate cannot happen if fracking is sustained in America. Joe Biden stated in the final presidential debate that
"We have a moral obligation"
to solve climate change. With that, he pledged to end the oil industry over time, replacing it with renewable resources. Biden, as the Democratic presidential nominee, is using fracking as a "transition" from oil, much similar to how natural gas is touted as a "transition fuel." However, banning fracking is a key part of the green future that Biden strives to create and Trump hopes to destroy.
Melissa Denchak. “Fracking 101.” NRDC, April 19, 2019. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fracking-101.
Saunois, Marielle. Rep. The Global Methane Budget 2000-2017. Paris, Canberra, Greenbelt: Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Biospheric Science Laboratory, August 19, 2019. Published on Earth Systems Access Data. https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-2019-128.
Howarth, R. W. “Ideas and Perspectives: Is Shale Gas a Major Driver of Recent Increase in Global Atmospheric Methane?” Biogeosciences 16, no. 15 (August 14, 2019): 3033–46. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-16-3033-2019.
Greenstone, Michael, Janet Curie, Christopher R. Knittel, and Alexander W. Bartik. Working paper. The Local Economic and Welfare Consequences of Hydraulic Fracturing. Chicago: Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, July 15, 2018. https://epic.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/SSRN-id2692197.pdf.
Stone, Judy. “Fracking And What New EPA Means For Your Health,” February 17, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2017/02/17/fracking-and-what-new-epa-means-for-your-health/.