The Frackin’ Problem by E.K.

“It was so bad sometimes that my daughter would be in the shower in the morning, and she’d have to get out of the shower and lay on the floor,” recalls Craig Sautner in an interview with U.S. News. Chemical levels in the household water have skyrocketed since hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, started just a half mile from the Sautners’ home. Even with expensive filtration equipment the water is not safe for drinking and evidently bathing as well. Aside from the methane that allows people to light their tap water on fire there are other many dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses.  

Many places in the U.S. have oil underneath them that we have known about for many years but only within the last few decades has it become economically feasible to drill them. These places are known as Shale-gas deposits and generally exist in a thin layer of shale about a mile beneath the surface and can stretch for many miles. Hydraulic fracturing shoots a water, sand, and chemical combination at high pressure into the loose rock allowing oil companies to gather up the gas and refine it right there. The process for refining is just as bad, they gather all of the oil and burn the impurities off that include many of the dangerous chemicals that were in the fracking fluid.  A huge amount of harmful chemicals are released into the air when this is done. All waste is either left there or taken to a nearby river or stream where it is dumped and left to pollute hundreds of miles of stream. This runoff contains many radioactive elements among other chemicals. Activists have gotten hold of some samples of the fracking fluid and have brought them to labs to get analyzed. Water makes of the vast majority of the compound but some chemicals that are present are, benzene which is cancer causing , ethylbenzene and toluene which cause neurological harm, xylene and methanol which are possible causes of the Sautners’ dizziness nausea and vomiting (though it is more likely that methanol is the cause), formaldehyde is a preserving agent that can cause severe injury to the upper gastrointestinal tract, and hydrochloric acid which causes the skin and eye pain (In a congressional testimony, some drilling companies have confirmed the presence of these chemicals.). Theo Colborn, an expert in water issues and a panel member in the EPA, estimates that a third of the chemicals in fracking fluid remain unknown to the public. That’s a whole lot of danger to have around you in my opinion.

The depletion of easier-to-reach, “conventional” gas deposits, and increases in the price of natural gas have spurned this change to horizontal drilling instead of the standard vertical drilling. Fracking wells have sprung up closer and closer to homes around the country and we are seeing the impacts on the communities as more and more children are getting sick. The impacts on the Sautners’ is undeniable. The family first realized that the nearby fracking was bad when their water turned brown and was causing corrosion on their dishes. They complained to Cabot, the drilling company responsible, and got a water pump installed. This fixed most problems but when health agencies sampled their water they found that the methane levels were way higher than considered safe. The son often had sores on his arms and legs from the water and the entire family experienced headaches and dizziness. With the water so contaminated the family has to take showers away from home but they cannot afford to move because the property value was ruined by the nearby well.

Much closer to home is Clif Willmeng, an anti-fracking activist, who lives in Lafayette Colorado. He spent many days during the flood in 2013 documenting all the fracking wells in Boulder County. He visited hundreds of wells and he saw many that were overturned, cracked or washed away completely leaving behind pools of waste materials and radioactive elements (I don’t actually know how he knows it was radioactive as he didn’t say anything about bringing a geiger counter.).

As fracking is here to stay whether we like it or not we should probably make it safer. Engineers and scientists alike have been asked this question and there were three main points, fix the leaks, get more data, and build better wells. Natural gas is a much better form of fuel for our environment than burning coal but contains mostly methane. When released into the air without being burned methane is a big player in climate change. Cracked pipes allow much more methane to be released than is considered acceptable by the federal government. Some companies are ready to change. Allowing so much gas to escape hurts their profits in the long run as well as the environment.   

Data can also lead the way to a safer future. If extensive government tests were run on the water and soil prior to drilling then companies would be much safer with drill sites least they got shut down. According to the EPA, monitoring the levels of methane in water would also give data to show how bad fracking really is as we don’t have actual unbiased results at this time. Before-and-after air sampling could identify locations that release toxic compounds and surveys of community-health metrics could help identify ways in which concentrated drilling activity harms nearby residents—or dispel misconceptions and worries.

The third solution is simple, build better wells. Many wells have been deemed faulty because of bad cement. The greatest offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon rig, was because of bad cement on the cap of the well. California set a possible precedent in 2013 by adding more regulations to fracking. Some of the biggest regulations were to ensure that the integrity of the well was sound, this included testing the cement used. With the U.S. drilling 100 new wells everyday it is important to make sure that they are all up to specifications.

With so many wells near our homes and families shouldn’t we be worried? We don’t want another disaster like Deepwater Horizon, this time on our doorstep.


Are You Fracking Serious? by Daniel Swanson

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is something that is easy to misunderstand. Those who don’t understand seem to think it does bad things to our environment… yes, they are all Prius owners. Fracking actually helps our economy, from lower oil and gas prices to opening up jobs for people. After reading this paper, fracking might not seem as bad anymore.

One misunderstanding is the most people think fracking causes earthquakes, but it does not. Steve Swanson, President of North Shore Energy, states, “earthquakes are typically not caused by oil and gas operations but, if they are, they are caused from produced water disposal and not fracking.” Earthquakes can be indirectly caused by this other oil and gas activity: “produced” water disposal at high pressures. Produced water is water that naturally flows to the surface when oil and gas is produced, which is then disposed of back in the earth. When the pressure builds up in that deeper disposal zone it can (sometimes) cause an earthquake. Although there are more than 180,000 of these water disposal wells in the U.S. (EPA 1) only a small fraction (<5%) are related to earthquake activity. However, this would occur regardless of fracking so fracking has no direct connection to earthquakes.

People also have the misconception that fracking automatically poisons drinking water. When asked about whether it could poison the water, Swanson stated, “It can but it would be very unusual. Fracking takes place very far below the surface (potentially miles below the aquifer) and drinking water is in aquifers that are relatively shallow.” Mr. Swanson drew a basic picture showing the great distance typically found between the oil zones (deep) and the drinking water zones (shallow) to make his point. People often use an out-of-scale picture as evidence of poison drinking water, but it is very unlikely. It is possible that fracking may contaminate drinking water when the wells drilled are too shallow and are drilled nearby an aquifer. Fracking may also affect drinking water when equipment used to produce the wells has a leak. However, just like with disposal wells, this occurs very infrequently.

Because the effects of contaminated drinking water are very serious, we should run tests to make sure wells are safe. This could be done by running simulations on a computer multiple times to figure out if drilling at a specific location is safe. If the tests show drilling is unlikely to cause contamination, wells can be drilled but still have penalties in place if something goes wrong. If the tests show it’s likely to cause contamination, then no drilling permits should be issued.

Now that I have cleared up some misconceptions, it is time to look at the benefits of fracking that are also overlooked. Fracking generates significant amounts of oil and gas which would not be produced using other methods. Fracking breaks up the rocks that hold oil and gas and allows both to move more freely. More oil and gas supply means lower prices, which benefit all the people who use it for driving and heating their homes.

It is still important to produce oil and gas because it provides a constant supply, whereas wind and solar are only intermittent (produced only when the wind blows or it’s sunny). Also, the cost of oil and gas is less. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) compared the cost of generating electricity using various sources in 2014 and found that natural gas was the second least expensive option, after geothermal, and considerably cheaper than wind and solar. Oil and gas is versatile because it can be used for heating and driving and it is storable and portable – it’s hard to live without it because it is so versatile.

Fracking also generates more jobs because oil companies need more people to work on drilling the wells and maintaining their facilities. These are professional types of jobs that pay well (not like flipping burgers!) and help grow the economy. These workers spend their money on other things, like supporting a family and buyings goods and services, so that other businesses are supported as well.

It is important that we develop all types of energy, including renewables (like wind and solar) and oil and gas, so that America can become energy independent – that means we don’t have to rely on Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to provide our energy. For now, oil and gas remains the least expensive energy source available. It also means we can spend more of our money here and not send it overseas, which will also help our economy.

In summary, there are many factors that affect whether people think fracking is good or bad. As a result, it is confusing and people then base their opinions on only the factors they like the most. There are real concerns about fracking, like earthquakes and polluting drinking water, and real benefits, like jobs and cheaper energy costs and energy independence. If you look at all the facts there should be some concern about fracking, but not as much as there is now. It is a safe process with minimal chance of error if done correctly.