Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking was introduced into the oil and gas industries in the late 1940s as a method of extracting petroleum or natural gas. Nowadays, it is estimated that “90% of the natural gas wells in the United States” (Dunlap, 2019, 97) employ fracking as a method of extraction. To put it simply, water (lots of it), about 750 chemical additives that are toxic or carcinogenic, and sand are blasted with high pressures into underground rock formations thereby cracking the rock and freeing up the flow of oil or gas.
The process of fracking involves drilling vertical or angled wells, sometimes as deep as 1 mile. When nearing the target rock formation, the well makes a gradual horizontal turn towards it. Steel pipes and concrete are inserted to seal spaces in which small holes are inserted to perforate the pipe. Fracking fluid is forced in at high pressures to create fractures in the rock or expand existing ones, freeing the oil or gas to flow to the surface. is then pumped in at a pressure high enough to create new fractures or open existing ones in the surrounding rock.
There are a variety of concerns with this process, such as the potential for methane to find its way into drinking water. Some “buildings have exploded as a result of dissolved methane (possibly from a fracked well)” (Dunlap 2019, 98). Perhaps the most consequential is the immense amounts of water it requires which eventually becomes contaminated from additives and the process as a whole.
There are genuine concerns in regards to freshwater depletion as a result, concerns that I myself share.
While the figure of 20 million liters is given, some wells may use as much as 60,566,588 liters (USGS, n.d.) which is, of course, dependent on the type of well, rock, and size of the operation. Granted not all, but some of the groundwater and surface water used is also allocated as drinking water supply, often in areas where freshwater access for drinking, irrigation, and ecosystem services are already stressed. And it isn’t like the water can simply be filtered and placed back in its original source. Doing so would require extensive and expensive treatment, and it is often stored deep underground.
The amount of water used is actually increasing over time too. Take the Permian Basin in the western region of Texas. Water use there increased 770% between 2011 and 2016. (Hurdle, 2018)
To put things into context, the average American family uses 400 gallons of water per day. (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017) 1 gallon is equal to 3.78541, so 400 gallons is equal to about 1514.16 liters. This means that it would take 13,208.644 days, or 36.19 years for a single-family home to use that equivalent of water—and that’s on the lowest of ends.
Some may say fracking is a necessity if we are to find new, cheaper sources of fossil fuels and reduce dependence on imported fuels, sometimes from unstable regions of the world.
If reducing cost, both direct and indirect, both fiscal and environmental, is the goal, then fracking is not the answer.