Hydraulic fracturing is an extraction technique that recovers natural gas and oil from shale rock. Fracking drills down into the ground to penetrate the strata layer where the energy reserves exist. Then a high-pressure water, sand, and chemical mixture get directed at the rock to release the reserves that exist inside.
When this process is successful, then the oil or natural gas can start to flow out to the head of the well. Depending on the location of the reserves, drillers can access the strata through horizontal or vertical drilling. Each new point creates a new place where energy releases occur that we can then process for a variety of needs.
Governments around the world award hundreds of licenses each year to create new wells. Even under the pressure of legal challenges, environmental contamination concerns, and the costs of drilling, companies typically find profits in their fracking activities.
Is this method of energy access something we should continue to use? The advantages and disadvantages of fracking might have an answer to that question.
List of the Advantages of Fracking
1. Correct management of fracking fluids prevents environmental harm.
Fracking helped to revolutionize the energy industry in the United States. The full potential of this work was not lost on the rest of the world, with several countries embracing the same technique at the start of the 21st century. Even though there are rightful concerns about environmental contamination with this process, a correctly implemented well leaves minimal problems.
Crews must case the borehole correctly to prevent the water, sand, and chemical mixture from leaking into the soil around the working area. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has zero reports of an incident like this happening in the United States in the past decade.
2. The fracking process occurs underneath the groundwater layer.
The reason why the borehole needs to have proper casement is because most wells go to a depth of 3,000 to 4,000 feet when fracking. That’s where the rock strata that holds the oil and natural gas exists. Most freshwater supplies for municipalities and private homes exist in the first 1,000 feet below the soil’s surface. Even if there were energy resources that would leak after fracking the rock layer, it would occur at a level well below where a contamination threat exists.
Robert Jackson from Duke University says that there are no peer-reviewed studies that have ever looked at the health effects of chronic methane ingestion in small amounts. The general working theory of most safety organizations is that low-level exposures are generally safe with our current understanding of the issue.
3. It provides an emissions profile that is similar to the natural processes of the planet.
Fracking activities can release methane into the atmosphere. It is a greenhouse gas that is up to 20 times more potent than the reflection of sunlight energy that carbon dioxide causes. The natural release of this gas occurs all over the planet as it occurs naturally in the soil. When you combine that figure with what farming activities cause, the emissions profile is similar to what already exists on our planet today.
Even if you look at the potential of methane contamination of water supplies, the risk of natural movement is similar to what exists with fracking activities. Over 2 million wells have gone through this process since 1949 in the United States without a reservoir experiencing contamination.
4. The fracking industry can capture greenhouse gas emissions.
Research studies from 2013 found that methane capture equipment can capture the emissions that come from fracking activities quite efficiently. The study was performed through the University of Texas-Austin, looking at almost 200 different fracking sites across the United States. About 70% of them had equipment in place that already reduced methane emissions by 99%.
When methane does escape, fracking wells “flare” it off by lighting it on fire. This process might contribute carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but it is within established levels that minimize the amount of harm caused in relation to the amount of energy we get to use.
5. Fracking helps us to stop using dirtier fossil fuels.
There are some politicians, environmentalists, and industry professionals that like to call fracking products “dirty fossil fuels.” What we need to remember about natural gas and shale oil is that it offers some massive advantages when we compare it to coal. The threat of mercury contamination does not exist in this industry as it does when looking at the operations of a coal-fired electricity plant.
Coal combustion can release several particulates into the atmosphere that contain harmful elements, which does not happen with fracking. Even with capture technologies in place around coal-fired facilities, you could find arsenic, VOCs, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and cadmium have created adverse impacts on the environment.
6. The need for water resources is minimal compared to other industries.
It takes more than 70,000 gallons of water to prepare a single well to release oil and natural gas from the rock strata below. Even though that figure seems like a massive amount, it is far less than what is necessary to extract petroleum, coal, or even nuclear energy. Some products, such as biofuel, require 740,000 gallons of water to produce the same output that we get from 10 times fewer resources through the fracking industry. There are even times when the fluids are reusable, which decreases the overall commitment needed to release the usable energy needed every day.
7. Fracking creates a domestic source of energy for countries to use.
Natural gas and shale oil resources may not be cost-competitive with some forms of crude oil, but it can make a country more energy independent. This advantage is one of the primary reasons why the U.S. energy industry has pursued this extraction method for over 70 years. Oil-producing countries work together to create artificial levels of supply and demand that impact the price of the product. When energy resources are available domestically because of fracking, then the added competition and increase in supply help to keep costs down for all consumers. Since you’re creating jobs and wages that boost local economies at the same time, you’re creating a win/win situation with this advantage.
8. The industry uses natural materials to release shale oil and natural gas.
Less than 3% of the liquid that the fracking industry uses to release energy reserves from underground are not naturally-based items. The vast majority of the fluid is water and sand. When you look at the chemical profile that companies release publicly, you’ll see the same names there that you can find on your ingredient list on household cleaners.
That doesn’t mean you’d want to dump bleach into a storm drain, but it does make us take a second look at the concept of overreacting to this process. Sodium chloride is the most common item you’ll find in fracking fluid that isn’t water or sand.
9. Fracking installations are not permanent.
Fracking wells do not leave permanent scars on the land. Even when property owners don’t own the rights to the oil and natural gas reserves under the property, the access that processing companies and rigs need is minimal. Once the drilling process is complete and the well is tapped, the energy reserves are added to the local infrastructure for processing, refinement, and distribution. Most operate independently with little, if any, supervision from mechanics or other repair personnel.
In return for this advantage, states like Colorado and North Dakota see over $8 billion in wages added to their local economy each year. Many infrastructure needs also receive attention because of the advantages this industry provides.
10. Companies use fracking to access challenging resources.
Fracking allows rigs to reach resources of natural gas and oil that would be challenging to access using more traditional methods of energy extraction. The United States experienced a significant boost to domestic oil production thanks to the expansion of this industry over the past generation. It offers fuel security to Canada and the U.S. that could last for about 100 years according to recent estimates published by the BBC.
This advantage presents the opportunity to create electricity at 50% of the carbon dioxide emissions that occur when using coal instead. That’s why fracking, even with some of the concerns that people have with it, is seen as a positive element to a nation’s infrastructure.
List of the Disadvantages of Fracking
1. The fracking industry is responsible for about 40% of U.S. methane from natural gas production.
There are numerous sites that implement methane capturing technologies as part of the fracking process. Unfortunately, about one-third of them do not. The emissions from equipment leaks and pneumatics account for about 40% of the estimated national emissions in the United States for methane that comes from natural gas production. These sites without capture measures in place release methane at levels that are 30 times higher than published EPA estimates.
Canada sees a similar issue with this disadvantage. Up to 50% of the new natural gas wells inspected in the province of Quebec leaked methane. Ronald Bishop from the State University of New York-Oneonta estimates that about 2% of all wells may end up contaminating groundwater supplies through the use of fracking fluids.
2. An investment in fracking is money that doesn’t go to renewable energy.
Natural gas and oil are fossil fuels that have a finite reserve with our current understanding of this energy That means there is a possibility that it may not be available for future generations to use. Investing in the fracking industry might satisfy our short-term needs, but it doesn’t address what might be necessary in the years to come.
Natural gas emits 60% less carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas emission during combustion, but that doesn’t come close to touching what solar, wind, or geothermal energy provides. Renewables are a carbon-neutral proposition over time. Fracking is not.
3. We consume more fossil fuels instead of less with fracking.
Having affordable energy solutions can benefit an economy in several ways. It also creates the potential for an increase in consumption habits. When humans have access to cheap fuel resources, then they tend to consume more of it instead of less. Our first goal is to find comfort and luxury with our discretionary spending habits. Since there are fewer benefits to conserve energy with this disadvantage, we can contribute more carbon dioxide and methane to our atmosphere – even with capture technologies present.
4. Some fracking companies do not publish the ingredients in their fracking fluid.
Although you can find well-by-well comparisons of what is in use by fracking companies, rig providers are not obligated to distribute their proprietary blend of chemicals in the fracking liquid. That means there might be zero chances for public review. Households may not have any knowledge about what may be impacting their groundwater reserves.
What we do know is that many wells expect the use of non-ionic surfactants to create the required force for fracking to be successful. This ingredient is a catch-all category that contains various products like NAE (Naphthenic Acid Ethoxylate), which creates adverse health impacts with repeated exposure. About 1 in 5 fracking chemicals used fits into the proprietary label and a lot of unknowns.
5. The presence of fracking activities may lower individual property values.
Most fracking projects occur in the western half of the United States. Limited drilling also happens in Europe and Asia. When you purchase property in the areas affected by the rigs, you do not always obtain the rights to every accessible component of the land. There are gas and mineral rights, water rights, and land rights that can be split from each other on the property deed.
If you don’t own the gas and mineral rights for your property, then someone else can purchase them. Once they hold that part of the deed, they can drill on your land without your permission. Active wells next to a home can reduce property values by more than 30% in some areas.
6. Fracking activities increase carcinogen exposure risks.
Some organizations would drill horizontally next to water-bearing foundations as a way to save money in the pioneer days of the fracking industry. This choice is now deemed to be a poor practice, but that shift in inclination does not alter the fact that benzene releases happened.
This disadvantage could still occur if a rig doesn’t follow the best practices of the fracking industry. When benzene enters the water supply, then the exposure creates a higher risk of cancer development. This agent has been detected in subterranean water supplies where hydraulic fracturing happened in the past.
7. Earthquakes can occur during and after fracking activities.
The United Kingdom suspended fracking activities for a considerable time because of the threat of earthquakes from this activity. Several U.S. states also encounter this disadvantage regularly. Many of these events occur in places where there are no known faults that should cause tremors on the scale that scientists detect. About 21 of these quakes occurred in the U.S. Midwestern states between the 1960s and the year 2000. All of them registered at 3.0 or less on the Richter scale.
Since then, the average number of earthquakes has continued climbing to reach almost 200 per year. There were over 1,000 of these events registered in 2015 across the country. The strongest of them happened in Oklahoma in 2016 when they experienced a 5.6 tremor believed to be linked to fracking.
8. The average well from fracking activities uses 30 million gallons of water.
Rigs need about 74,000 gallons of water to cause the rock strata to release natural gas and energy reserves. That figure doesn’t sound like much, but the lifetime need for these installations is much higher. Most wells will need about 30 million gallons over their lifespan to continue providing access to the affordable energy needed. Although that figure is significantly less than the 900 billion gallons of waste that households in the United States lose because of leaks each year, it is a significant amount that could be going to other uses. Less than 3% of our planetary water supply is drinkable, and this is what we use to release the energy we consume.
9. It changes how we use the environment.
MPs in 2015 rejected an outright ban on fracking in the United Kingdom. They did say that there wouldn’t be any drilling activities allowed in national parks. It took less than a year to have a vote that authorized rigs to operate at 1,200 meters below World Heritage Sites, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, and other designated locations. President Donald Trump announced plans in April 2019 to allow the same activities near California’s national parks after a five-year moratorium on the activity.
When fracking occurs in recreational areas, the activity changes how we can access those lands. We must work around the drilling area, avoid any unknown liquid runoff, and find ways to protect wildlife in the area. Even if the impact on the land is minimal, minor changes to habitats can cause significant disruptions to local animal species.
10. Breakdowns in the well can still contaminate drinking water.
The National Academy of Sciences published a study that showed high-volume fracking increases the risk of localized water contamination. The issue with this disadvantage is that energy providers extend the capabilities of their staff until their coverage is too thin to properly supervise each well. Contamination can cause the borehole casing to prematurely corrode, allowing energy supplies to leak into the water. This problem can include methane contamination.
NIH studies have found methane in well water near fracking sites after reviewing 68 different private water wells in New York and Pennsylvania. The average concentration levels rose when properties were closer to where the rig tapped the rock strata. This issue has even caused reports of flammable drinking water near these locations.
11. Fracking activities are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fracking regulations across the United States vary widely. The one point of common ground that all American rigs have is that they are exempt from following the Safe Drinking Water Act. A federal law passed during the Bush Administration in 2005 exempts fracking organizations from this legislation. It is also the reason why these energy providers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to release energy from the rock strata.
Fracking continues to be a common method of energy extraction because it provides several economic benefits. It can provide millions of dollars in tax revenues to local schools, create high-paying jobs, and less reliance on imports. Former Prime Minister Theresa May once told the Yorkshire Post that shale gas extraction was essential because of the impact it has on future energy security.
There will always be notable environmental concerns to review, even if government officials say that the proper disposal of fluids doesn’t pose a risk to communities. Critics of fracking often label shale oil and natural gas as one of the dirtiest fossil fuels we could use.
The advantages and disadvantages of fracking must balance the need for energy solutions with the cost of resources necessary to release them. There are times when it could be a viable solution, but it could also be a 20th-century solution for a 21st-century problem.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.