“Fracking” isn’t a cussword, yet. It refers to “hydraulic fracturing,” a process by which enormous volumes of toxic chemicals and scarce water are injected into the earth under very high pressure, cracking and splitting deep rock formations. Oil or gas that has been diffused and isolated for eons can flow from the cracks to be pumped to the surface.
Fracking scrapes the bottom of the barrel — easily accessible sources of gas and oil have already been drained. The price we pay for squeezing blood from this turnip will be severe, never mind the mixed metaphors. We’ll never be “energy independent” so long as we remain dependent on fossil fuels, especially when we actually export this hard-won “surplus” to further fatten fossil-fuel moguls’ wallets.
A letter-writer who makes part of his living from the proceeds of fracking previously offered us his commitment to sharing facts about the process. That’s a good thing.
However, space for these columns is limited, so he wasn’t able to share all the facts of interest. No room, at least, for facts that embarrass the industry.
For example, useful water is scarce and getting scarcer, like easy oil. Producing ethanol and fracked fuels basically converts irreplaceable water into a substitute for fossil fuels. We lose the water, much of which doesn’t re-enter the ecology, but we can’t drink oil.
The full fracking treatment for a well in Michigan consumes around 50,000 gallons of water, but a single fracture in a deeper Marcellus well can use 500,000 gallons; completing it adds 5 to 13 million more.
Most fracking water does not resurface, forever lost to the sources from which it was extracted. “Flowback” water that does return is typically injected into additional underground disposal wells, not treated for reuse.
Fracking water comes from rivers, lakes, ground water, industrial or city wastewater treatment discharge, and reused frack fluid. Large ground water withdrawals can cause upwelling of deeper, low-quality fluid; create geologic subsidences; and lower aquifer levels exposing minerals to oxygen, causing chemical contamination, salination, and foul taste/odor. Using surface water can impact hydrology by changing flow, depth and temperature of a water source, and concentrating contaminants by reducing dilution. Surface and ground water are hydrologically linked; rob one, rob both.
Because frack water usually is not reused and returned to the water cycle, it represents a consumptive use that can alter flows underground. Some estimates suggest that while water withdrawals might appear small considering the resources of a state as a whole, the local effect can be large.
Forty-seven percent of oil and gas wells recently fracked in the U.S. are in regions with high or extremely high water stress, and 55 percent are in areas experiencing drought.
While water is by far the largest component of fracking fluids, they’re full of other chemicals.
Industry apologists note only 2 percent of fracking fluids are chemicals. Is this a negligible dose?
Consider that 2 percent of a million gallons is 20,000 gallons. One typical deep well requires 100,000 gallons of chemicals in its 5 million gallons of water.
What chemicals, exactly? Hard to tell, because the industry won’t. Frackers employ more than 700 different agents. Industry spokesmen generally refuse to identify specific chemicals (apart from hydrochloric acid!), relying instead on generalities like “oxygen stabilizers.” Supposedly they must guard their “proprietary formulas” from competitors — as though nobody else’s formulae would work as well. They all work all too well.
Chemicals used in the fracking process are also used in other settings — swimming pools and food, for example. However, in those instances, the chemicals are not combined with the other chemicals used in fracking. The synergistic effect of multiple agents acting in combination differs greatly from their effects when used alone.
Leaks and spills are too common. In Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio, grazing animals have sickened and died after drinking fracking runoff and water from farm wells near fracking. One farmer lost millions’ worth of almond and pistachio crops from groundwater contamination by a nearby oil and gas operation.
Fracking fluids migrated unpredictably — through different rock layers, and to greater distances than previously thought — in as many as half the cases studied in the United States.
While chemicals leak, spill and migrate, we are slowly discovering what they are. One group is the “endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” or EDC’s. These can alter hormone activity, including male and female reproductive hormones. In large-scale studies, EDC’s in biologically significant amounts were present at highest levels in waters near fracking operations.
Instead of remaining sequestered far below the surface as the industry claims, fracking chemicals are emerging into the light of day, no longer out of sight and mind.
Since 2009, we’ve seen an unprecedented surge in earthquakes in mid-America, coincident with a rise in fracking. Industry flacks use the time-tested tobacco dodge — the science is unsettled, experts disagree, association isn’t causation, “further research” is needed before we act in haste.
A study in “Science” makes it clear: “The entire increase in earthquake rate is associated with fluid injection wells.” Not just any wells, but specifically those with high injection rates. If we pump in high-pressure fluid too fast, slowly adapting geologic structures can’t accommodate. Earthquakes result.
We can reduce earthquakes by fracking at lower flow rates. As for the rest, this vast, long-term, uncontrolled, largely unmonitored, geologic engineering experiment promises at best short-term relief in exchange for long-term destruction.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.