What's Up With Fracking?

Fracking in the Marcellus Shale / Wikimedia Commons

Despite the fact that natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as “fracking”)  is playing a newly prominent role in America’s energy mix, a recent study reported that 63% of Americans still don’t know what this process is.

We gathered the latest information on fracking to bring you up to speed:

What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing is a method of drilling for natural gas (and oil) that involves digging a deep well and pumping a mixture of water and chemicals at high pressure into the ground, “fracturing” the rock, to force the methane out.

Why am I just hearing about fracking now?

Fracking is a relatively new method of drilling that unlocks natural gas reserves that were previously inaccessible. In 2001, shale gas made up 2% of the natural gas supply in the U.S. It now constitutes 30%. As fracking is increasingly used as a method of extracting natural gas, more communities are paying attention to the impacts. Josh Fox’s 2010 film Gasland also raised public consciousness about fracking.

Where is fracking happening in the U.S.?

Much fracking is occurring in the rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which runs through northeastern states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but fracking is happening in other shale deposits across the country from Texas to Utah and North Dakota, too. Here’s a map of shale gas deposits.

Why are people concerned about fracking?

Water Consumption and Pollution: The fracking process requires large amounts of water: 70 to 140 billion gallons in the US each year, competing with humans and agriculture for resources. The fracking waste water contains many chemicals that are toxic to humans and wildlife and has been known to reach the groundwater supply of nearby communities. Even if the wastewater is “properly” disposed of, through treatment, recycling or road application, it still presents a risk to living things. Surface gas spills have also been documented.  

Air Pollution and Climate Impacts: Natural gas is often touted as a cleaner fuel than oil or coal because it releases lower levels of harmful chemicals like CO2 and sulfur dioxide when burned. But the lifecycle costs of natural gas should also be considered. Methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, is routinely flared from drilling sites and may also escape from storage tanks. The Environmental Defense Fund says that if these leaks aren’t contained, natural gas will be little better than coal when it comes to climate impacts.  

In some areas, fracking also produces ozone at ground level which causes health problems like asthma and lung damage. Pollution from the fracking production process is also a concern as many machines and vehicles that run on diesel service drilling sites.

What can be done?

Some environmental groups such as Earthworks, Clean Water Action, Food & Water Watch, Earthjustice and others say that the risk to communities and the environment from fracking is too great, industry safety records too lax, and that unsafe fracking should be stopped. The state of Vermont has recently banned fracking.

Organizations like Environmental Defense Fund and Rocky Mountain Institute think that fracked natural gas has a place in America’s energy supply and are working to ensure that the problems associated with fracking are reduced through better regulations and oversight.

All agree that the current situation is neither safe nor sustainable, and are giving the public a voice in the direction of the country’s energy future.


Learn more:

Hydraulic fracturing and the FRAC Act: Frequently Asked Questions, EarthWorks*

Natural Gas, Rocky Mountain Institute*

Science and the Fracking Boom: Missing Answers, NPR

Fracking, Food & Water Watch*

The Fracking Fuss, Natural Resources Defense Council*

The No Fracking Campaign, Center for Health, Environment, and Justice*


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