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What the frack are you talking about?

Whether you are a raging ecoist or just mildly concerned about the environment, you probably have heard the term fracking being thrown around lately. But what exactly is fracking and is it really as bad as opponents say?

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping fluids into oil and gas well sites to open or enlarge fractures in the geological formation in order to help push the oil and gas up to the surface to be collected. For a more thorough definition, visit here.

Anti-frackers

Now that we know a little more about fracking, let’s examine why so many folks are against it. For starters, it’s important to note that many opponents of hydraulic fracturing are really just against drilling and have come to use the term fracking to refer to the whole process of drilling wells for oil and gas. However, a number of fracking critics point to specific aspects of the process which they claim are potentially harmful to one’s health and the environment. Environmental watchdog Food & Water Watch has taken up the campaign against hydraulic fracturing citing evidence of water contamination near fracking sites. The group also claims that the process produces toxic wastewater that cannot be treated by standard treatment plants. The group goes on to say that fracking requires millions of gallons of water and can cause natural gas to migrate into drinking water sources, which can lead to explosions in wells and homes.

Pro-frackers

The thought of toxins getting into our ground water is certainly scary, however those in the oil and gas industry, like Chesapeake Energy, claim that liquid used for fracking is mostly water and sand, with just a small amount of additives. Furthermore, Chesapeake noted that state regulations in place already do a lot to protect groundwater and require oil and gas companies to construct their wells with multiple layers of steel casing surrounded by cement. Citing a report from the Ground Water Protection Council in April 2009, Chesapeake claims it is highly unlikely that fracking deep shale natural gas and oil wells would impact groundwater.

A (more or less) objective view

So we’ve heard from representatives from both sides of the fracking debate, each with their own agendas for supporting or opposing the process. How about we check in with a source that weighs on both sides? According to National Geographic, many of the small amounts of chemicals found in fracking fluid are harmless (instant coffee and walnut hulls for example), while others may pose more of a problem. National Geographic claims that 29 of the chemicals used for fracking are known or possible human carcinogens. Yikes! Well before you start freaking out, National Geographic cited a study from Duke University, which found no evidence of fracking fluids in drinking water near well sites. It is important to note that the study “did not test comprehensively for organics or other potential additives in fracking fluids.”

National Geographic points out that the real environmental concern is flowback water, which is a portion of the fracking fluid that is returned to the surface the days and weeks following the procedure; and produced water, which is what flowback water becomes once it naturally transitions to the composition of formation water found within the shale. So if there’s bad stuff in the shale, there’s likely bad stuff in the produced water. When flowback water and produced water are spilled or not disposed of safely, they can make their way into drinking water. National Geographic cites data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that found that about 50 spills have occurred in the Marcellus Shale through August of this year.

While National Geographic’s concern about flowback and produced water may be valid, Chesapeake noted on its website that regulations require energy companies to treat their flowback water prior to discharge. They also noted that underground injection of flowback is regulated by the EPA or state enforcement authorities.

Where do you stand?

Still not sure where you stand on fracking? That’s OK! Turns out there’s a lot left unknown about the process. Even the EPA isn’t sure about it, and in March 2010 announced an extensive study into the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The EPA said it won’t have the first results of the study until the end of 2012, so until then, it is hard to make an assessment one way or the other about the impact of hydraulic fracturing.

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