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Scrutinized: The Future of Fracking

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as fracking, has become a commonplace procedure in the United States over the last two decades. Fracking has been utilized by Americans for centuries in order to obtain fossil fuel deposits located well beneath the surface. Recently it has grown in popularity amidst a time where the United States has greatly capitalized off of profitable, albeit unsustainable, natural resources.

In the past decades, fracking’s popularity has been attributed to its enormous economic benefits for gas and energy consumers. Since 2013, natural gas prices have dropped almost 47% and all kinds of energy consumers have seen economic growth of up to $74 billion dollars from fracking. Despite the fracking boom that has upheld large portions of the energy sector and landscapes throughout the United States, fracking also poses detrimental threats to the nation’s health and environment, causing many scientists to be skeptical of the procedure. Obtaining natural gas and oil from beneath the Earth’s surface is no easy task. In order to overcome the Earth’s natural barriers, massive holes, known as wellbores, are drilled 2,500-3,000 meters below the surface, where it reaches its “kick-off point.” Turning 90 degrees, the bore then travels around 1.5 kilometers horizontally through the shale rock formation. Afterwards, steel pipes known as casings are inserted into the well and then perforated with a gun to create inch-long holes that break through the casing into the rock layer. The pipes are then filled with a fracking fluid that is mixed with chemical additives so that natural gas can more easily reach the surface. This fluid is then pumped at a high pressure to create fissures and fractures within the rock. A propping agent, which consists of tiny particles within the fracking fluid that hold the fractures open, is then placed into the fissures to keep them from closing when the pressure is eventually released into the casings. Finally, pressure causes fracking fluids, as well as the recovered oil or gas, to return to the surface, where it is stored in tanks or dumped into surface water. Though there are lined reservoirs or frac pits intended to capture and store this backwater, leaks from operational errors or from faulty equipment can contaminate water tables. Natural gas companies deny the negative effects of hydraulic fracturing, attributing spills and leaks to human error. Nevertheless, tremendous consequences for the environment and human health are a growing concern amongst the scientific community and those who live near fracking wells. Despite the contaminated waterways and degraded ecosystems due to carelessness and a desire to push for unsustainable, non-renewable resources, the procedure is still commonplace throughout the United States.

Though most consider the consequences of hydraulic fracturing to impact freshwater ecosystems and humans the most, this dangerous procedure also poses immense problems for marine ecosystems. A 2014 case study from the Center for Biological Diversity further reveals how oil companies and fracking corporations have impacted the aquatic life around the Pacific Ocean. The study ultimately revealed that, as of 2014, the U.S. government had permitted nine billion gallons of wastewater to be dumped off of California’s coast. This is a habitat for hundreds of fish species, whales, sea otters, and hundreds of other marine life. Often, fracking materials and fluids enter waterways through accidental spillages, many of which are routine in offshore fracking operations. Additionally, onshore and offshore fracking operations in California were more likely to use concentrated chemicals that were moderately toxic to mammals and could harm the longevity of fish, sea otters, and other invertebrates. Some of these chemicals, like boron compounds, phenol formaldehyde resins, and crystalline silica quartz, were also found to inhibit growth and survival on marine life, target organ toxicity, or reduce biodiversity in certain communities, respectively. Unfortunately, still too little is known regarding the toxicological impact of these chemicals on the ecosystem as there is little transparency as to all the chemicals utilized in creating this fluid. As oil and gas development destroys wildlife habitats through pollution, spillage, and noise disruption, it is evident that dire action is necessary if vital ecosystems are to be protected.

Despite the known effects that fracking has on the environment, legislation surrounding this process has been lackluster at best. Currently, there are few public health laws governing fracking, and, in general, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to respond to contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing from unconventional sources. Federal laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are integral policies meant to protect surface water from pollution and to ensure that contaminated wastewater does not endanger other water sources. Nevertheless, several exemptions also exist which allow oil and gas operations to bypass possible liabilities. For example, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act does not classify oil and gas production wastes as hazardous, thus allowing for less oversight of the consequences that could emerge if spills or leakage were to occur. Unfortunately, while these regulations place some hindrances to the harvesting of unconventional oil and shale resources, hydraulic fracturing is still mostly regulated at the state level. As states vary in their regulations or commitments to oversee this practice, it can be even more difficult to mitigate the environmental impacts that fracking poses across the nation.

In 2020, the Fracking Ban Act was proposed by the U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with the goal to prohibit federal agencies from permitting the expansion for fracking oil and fracking equipment. The proposed piece of legislation, H.R. 5857, would require the EPA to conduct comprehensive surveys of fracking wells across the country, rescind permits for wells within 2,500 feet of inhabited spaces, and ban onshore and offshore fracking by 2025. The bill is still in the “Introduced” phase, but this federal legislation marks a distinct change as to how the federal government can positively influence fossil fuel acquisition and address its harmful effects on the environment. However, despite the proposed Fracking Ban Act, the fight for better fracking legislation will be an uphill battle.

Though President Biden took a firm stance against fracking during his campaign, his administration approved new oil drilling permits across the nation, which could result in around 800 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution in the future. If fracking is to be taken seriously, stronger and more effective laws at the state and federal level must be enacted in order to protect the communities that all plants, animals, and abiotic entities inhabit. By participating in grassroots organizing efforts, informing others and ourselves through media or social media, and petitioning, you too can make an impact on your local community to push back against harmful and inadequate fracking legislation. Already, organizations like Greenpeace USA, Food & Water Action, and Oil Change U.S. are advocating for policy changes similar to the Fracking Ban Act, which you can do as well by signing the petition here.



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