I’ve bitten off a lot of salad here with tackling the issue of fracking in my first crunchie. First of all, what is a crunchie, you say? Well, it’s a bite-sized bit to go with your spinach: a short, hopefully fairly neutral summary of an issue, program, law, problem, or question. A while back, we were discussing the fact that some of the issues we talk about here are old hat to those of us who work in the environmental field – but might be unfamiliar to many of our readers. Crunchies are our aim to remedy that: the quick-and-dirty summary that will (hopefully) help you interpret what you read here, or elsewhere, with a bit of context.
So – on to fracking. First, why the topic? In light of TheGreenLight’s review on Promised Land, I thought it was appropriate. Second, a nice picture:
WHAT IT IS: Fracking – formally known as “hydraulic fracturing”
How it works: After drilling, a pressurized fluid is injected into a well in order to create small fractures that will allow fluids or natural gasses to flow through the well more easily and enable extraction.
This BBC Video explains (and illustrates) the basics of the process, and it’s only 15 seconds long. (So, very basic, but still)
Who’s In Charge? Right now, nobody, really. That’s part of the issue. The EPA has some authority and has a few long-term study in process about the effects of fracking on groundwater – which they do have jurisdiction over under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, it’s currently regulated on a state-by-state basis, and not at the federal level.
What’s the current issue? Natural gas exploration has been booming, especially in the eastern United States. However, there are serious concerns about the safety of the fracking process and the potential for contamination of both ground and surface waters. The chemicals in fracking fluid are currently undisclosed and unregulated, in many cases because oil and gas companies claim them as trade secrets, which has raised eyebrows among many consumers and advocacy groups (that’s putting it lightly).
One Side of the Story: Natural gas is a cleaner fuels source than other types of fossil fuels, with lower emissions in greenhouse gases and other particulates. It’s also something we have abundantly here in the U.S., which has allowed us to greatly reduce imported fuel – and, given the unrest in the middle east – having a readily available and reliable source of domestic energy is a huge deal. Natural gas has also been a huge boost economically for areas of the U.S. that were severely impacted by the recession, bringing jobs and big money to those whose land is leased out for gas.
The Other Side of the Story: Fracking isn’t a clean or precise process. It takes 2- 4 million gallons of water to frack a single well, once, and some wells have to be fracked three or four times. Often, this water is taken from potable, treated water sources – which means it’s not going to people who need drinking water. When the job is over, the water is pumped out and disposed of – which is another mess. Since we don’t know what’s going into it (remember the part about fracking fluids being undisclosed?) it’s pretty tricky to treat the wastewater that comes back out of the well after they’re done fracking. Finally, the biggest debate rages over whether or not the fractures induced in the rock layers during the fracking process increase the migration of oil & gas into groundwater layers, contaminating aquifers and thus future drinking water sources.
Also, while it’s a domestic fuel source, it’s not a renewable one; it is lower emissions but not zero emissions. So there is that.
Why you should care: If you live anywhere in New York, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado, North or South Dakota, California, uhh….basically everywhere….fracking could be coming to a town near you. Maybe it already is. There is also some important legislation coming down the pipeline about whose job it is to regulate fracking and how widespread the practice should be.
What you can do: It’s hard to find neutral information out there, because the debate is so hotly contested. But, if you want to get involved on one side or the other – read up – and find out what is going on in your state. There’s a lot on the line here: most votes about fracking recently have been very close, so make your voice count.
Other Sources of Information:
Huffington Post’s Fracking Page – All the news you could ever want, just on fracking!
A Popular Mechanics take on fracking
The Schlumberger Oilfield Services Guide to Fracking Resources