What exactly is fracking?Hydraulic fracturing -- often called hydrofracking or simply fracking -- is a drilling technique that's used to extract natural gas (or oil) from deep underground.
The process involves drilling a deep well a mile or more underground. After reaching a layer of rock that contains natural gas, the drill then turns horizontally to snake its way thousands of feet farther through that layer of rock.
Where does hydrofracking take place?Hydraulic fracturing is often used in areas where there's a lot of shale, a kind of rock made up of clay, quartz and other minerals. Natural gas found in shale formations is sometimes referred to as "shale gas."
Large areas of shale formations are found worldwide, and in the United States they're present from New York state and the Great Lakes area down to Texas, and across the Great Plains. Fracking is now occurring in over 30 states where shale and other rock formations promise a big yield of natural gas.
One of the world's richest areas of natural gas is known as the Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches from West Virginia through Pennsylvania into New York; it's sometimes called "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas." Private landowners in this area are under intense pressure to lease their land to hydraulic fracturing companies: In 2011, over 16,000 new fracking wells were drilled in Pennsylvania alone.
How does fracking get natural gas out?To extract the natural gas, drillers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and a variety of chemicals into the well under extremely high pressure. That pressure is high enough to fracture the underground rock layer, and the fracturing and cracking of the rock releases the natural gas into the well -- pressure then forces the natural gas up through the well to the surface.
Natural gas is a clean, green energy source, right?Not really. While natural gas burns somewhat cleaner than oil, and a lot cleaner than coal, it's still a fossil fuel that adds greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane to the atmosphere -- as a result, natural gas contributes to the problem of climate change.
Additionally, natural gas is non-renewable: Like all fossil fuels, nobody can make more natural gas, so once a source of natural gas is used up, it's gone forever.
But if natural gas is cleaner than oil or coal, why are people worried about fracking?Because of the long-term health problems and environmental damage associated with hydraulic fracturing. A big part of the issue are the chemicals that are added to water and sand, then forced underground to fracture the rock. Scientists have identified several cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (sometimes called "BTEX") in the wastewater produced by fracking, but nobody knows for sure what chemicals fracking companies are pumping underground.
Nobody knows? How is that possible?The fracking companies know, but they're not telling. In 2005, the Bush administration supported an energy bill that exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, so companies that engage in hydraulic fracturing can keep their chemical mixture a secret, even to those people who have signed leases to allow fracking on their land.
This exemption is sometimes referred to as "the Halliburton Loophole," since it was pushed through by then-vice president Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, one of the largest fracking companies in America.
Where do these dangerous hydrofracking chemicals go?These cancer-causing chemicals usually remain locked within layers of rock deep underground, but they can also enter underground drinking water supplies and destroy drinking water quality. High levels of methane gas (another greenhouse gas) have been found in drinking water supplies in areas where fracking has occurred. This methane is believed to be responsible for dramatic images of tap water that ignites when a match is held near the faucet, as seen in the film Gasland.
When natural gas comes to the surface, it also brings with it millions of gallons of water that's been contaminated with a wide range of fracking chemical as well as radioactive elements like radium. This toxic, radioactive wastewater is stored in on-site ponds that can leak or overflow into streams. In other cases, the toxic wastewater is dumped at water treatment plants that don't have the ability to treat radioactive water that's heavily contaminated with fracking chemicals. That contaminated water then goes downstream -- and into another town's drinking water.
These serious, long-term threats to water quality are one of the many objections people have to fracking, especially in the Marcellus Shale region, which is located in an important watershed that provides drinking water for some 16 million people.
Does hydrofracking also impact air quality?Yes. Fracking chemicals, plus a wide range of other gases, are routinely released into the air near fracking wells. High levels of cancer-causing BTEX, as well as compounds that are linked to birth defects, neurological problems and a host of other serious health problems, have been found in areas where fracking wells are common. According to the EPA, "There have been well-documented air quality impacts in areas with active natural gas development, with increases in emissions of methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants."
Aren't there regulations to protect air and water quality from fracking?Not really. Energy companies have succeeded in shielding hydraulic fracturing from the regulations that apply to other industries (see the "Halliburton Loophole," above). Also, fracking technology has outpaced state and federal regulations, which are now playing catchup to an industry that has immense political and financial muscle.
A 2011 investigative report in The New York Times exposed many of the regulatory gaps that have allowed fracking companies to operate with little or no oversight. The report also exposed the health impacts and environmental destruction that have resulted in areas where hydraulic fracking is common.
But if we can control the air and water impacts of fracking, it would be fine.Mitigating the impacts that hydraulic fracturing has on air and water quality would be a big improvement, but there's a third problem that keep occurring in fracking areas: earthquakes. Scientists suspect that a growing number of earthquakes in areas that are usually seismically inactive -- like Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas -- may be related to the rise in fracking in those places.
These myriad concerns -- air pollution, water pollution and possible earthquakes -- are among the reasons that several governments have banned all hydraulic fracturing or have placed a moratorium on the practice. France banned all fracking in 2011, and there's a moratorium on it in parts of Canada, South Africa and Australia, as well as in several U.S. states.
But don't the jobs and the energy created by hydrofracking outweigh the costs?That's the subject of a debate that's raging all across America. To some, bringing cheap energy to market -- and providing jobs in economically depressed areas -- far outweigh any health or environmental impacts. To others, however, the problems associated with hydraulic fracturing are just one more example of an industry that's destroying the environment and ruining people's health in the pursuit of short-term profits and the development of non-renewable energy sources.
To address these concerns, many citizens and government officials are supporting measures that will curb the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act would, at a minimum, force fracking companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking by repealing the Halliburton Loophole. Even if this measure passes, however, the issue of fracking will remain a social and political hot potato for many years to come.