Hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as "fracking", is a heavily contested issue, in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and a number of other countries across the globe. While supporters of fracking often point out the economic and energy benefits of this practice, opponents mostly are concerned with its environmental and health impacts.

Fracking protest signs
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A large number of opponents to fracking brought their concerns to Washington in 2012.

What is 'Fracking'?

Hydraulic fracturing is a method of extracting energy sources, such as oil and gas, from beneath the ground. For some time now, experts have known these resources were underneath the surface, but technology had no way to get at it. That has changed in recent years.

In order to perform fracking, high-pressure injections of water are inserted deep into the earth. These injections are full of water, sand and chemicals. This combination of "ingredients" is used to break through rock to release the oil and gas inside shale.

There is heavy dispute about the side effects of this type of fuel extraction from the Earth. Many question fracking's impact on various environmental and health factors, perhaps most especially damage to water, a precious resource that is already in dire shortage in some areas of the world and a growing concern as it becomes more scarce.1

Can Fracking Contaminate Water Supplies?

Along with the millions of gallons of water being injected below the earth's surface is a "cocktail" of chemicals. The chemicals are said to be full of carcinogens and toxins, including lead, methanol, uranium, ethylene glycol, radium, hydrochloric acid, mercury and formaldehyde.2Image Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency/Public Domain

Hydraulic Fracturing-Related ActivitiesCredit: US Environmental Protection Agency/Public Domain

There are many concerns that local water supplies could be contaminated, and this would have a horrific impact on farmers (and its food supply) if a fracking-related disaster were to occur. Even the beer industry  is worried about how this practice could impact their regional water supplies if an accident or other form of contamination were to occur. In 2012, breweries in upstate New York were expressing concerns as state government was weighing fracking regulations. Across the Atlantic, this has been a front and center issue in Germany in recent months with the beer industry pushing back against fracking.3

In recent years a massive study was conducted on the wastewater from fracking, and preliminary results said no contamination had occurred. However, there have been claims of contamination in previous years and many other related concerns about the entire process dealing with wastewater. And a 2013 report published U.S. News highlighted that faulty data collection problems could possibly be masking problems associated with contamination of water. 4 As it stands, there is no advanced method of data collection. Although, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently conducting ongoing studies.

What about General Water Waste?  

Water is rapidly becoming a precious commodity, and with every occurrence of hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water are used to fracture each individual well. This technique is developed at a time when there is so much unusable water across the globe due to river pollution and other contamination of bodies of water occurring. Opponents of fracking are concerned with wasted water. If so many people across the globe are already suffering due to a shortage of good water, it is questionable whether or not this precious natural resource should be wasted in any form--including fracking. Although, in some cases, fracking water is reused for other fracking operations. It isn't that simple though.Did you know, in some instances, after wastewater is treated, it is put back in the rivers? I didn't. Not all water can be tracked either, according to a study last year.6

River scene
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Hudson River (New York State)


Opponents of fracking are also concerned with how the energy industry may contributed to increased seismic activity. Earthquakes are often cited as an environmental issue associated with fracking. A study published in July 2013 highlights at least three earthquakes located far away from hydraulic fracturing wells are linked to the practice.

"The fluids (in wastewater injection wells) are driving the faults to their tipping point," said Nicholas van der Elst of Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, who led the 2013 study. 7

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Throughout 2014, much talk centered around fracking and earthquakes. At least two other studies (published in Science magazine and Seismological Research Letters) published in 2014 (July and November) suggested fracking is contributing to increased earthquake activity in the U.S. Heartland.

Lack of Transparency

It is estimated about 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used with each fracking job. However, the exact chemicals and amounts are not disclosed, because this "cocktail" is considered to be proprietary by business standards. As a result, in different areas, depending on local laws, the companies do not have to disclose the chemicals being injected into the ground. Although, at least one company, drilling services company Baker Hughes, said in Oct. 2014 it will disclose the contents of its "cocktail" to increase transparency. However, many other companies do not. Whether or not they will begin to share their formulas remains to be seen.

In the United States, the fracking industry is not specifically included in the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Opponents often question why this is the case.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does state:

While the SDWA [Safe Drinking Water Act] specifically excludes hydraulic fracturing from UIC regulation under SDWA § 1421 (d)(1), the use of diesel fuel during hydraulic fracturing is still regulated by the UIC program.

The controversial aspect is that everyone shares the Earth and has to live with any impact made, raising the question if people have a right to know what's being put into it?

The economic benefits are an attractive aspect of fracking, but the controversy asks, at what cost? With risk of contaminated water sources, earthquakes that could be destructive and other unknown factors, is it worth the risk? The issue is a very divisive one and one that is likely not going to have a happy resolution in the near future.