Development of the technology and techniques used in hydraulic fracturing – commonly referred to as fracking – has directly resulted in a vast expansion of the United States oil and natural gas industry. This new method of reaching previously unreachable reserves of fossil fuels should mean a large energy supply for the country for years to come.
It’s also billed as being environmentally safe. But is it?
Many accuse companies that use fracking to be “greenwashing” the public, convincing them that the process of fracking is safe in order to keep money flowing in the multi-million industry. A growing number of people are beginning to protest the use of the process.
It was even the subject of the 2012 film Promised Land starring Matt Damon that centered around a company that tries to bring fracking to a small town.
How hydraulic fracturing works
There are large reserves of oil and natural gas buried deep within the earth, much of it trapped in places that can’t be reached through conventional drilling. Deposits within shale are called “tight oil” or “tight gas” and in the past have been impossible to reach.
Through the process of fracking, fissures within the earth are widened by injecting water, chemicals and sand into the ground at high pressure. One of the first places the process was used was in north Texas, although most now associate fracking with North Dakota, where fracking is used in the vast Bakken shale formation that stretches west to Montana and north into Canada.
China, New Zealand and Canada have also started using fracking to reach shale oil and gas deposits in their respective countries.
Issues with fracking
But fracking has its opponents who claim the process is harmful to the environment.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the nonprofit international environmental group, opposes the expansion of fracking until more safeguards are put into place. According to the NRDC website, fracturing is suspected of causing groundwater damage in Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
On its website, the NRDC accuses fracking of contaminating water supplies, polluting the air, destroying waterways and leaving behind “devastated landscape.”
Methods of making fracking safer for the environment
Some of the steps the NRDC and other environmental groups would like to see happen to make fracking safer include:
- Placing sensitive lands, particularly those with watersheds, off limits to fracking.
- Setting new clean air standards for fracking that require the release of methane be kept to 1 percent of total emissions.
- Setting higher standards for the equipment used in fracking.
- Requiring disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking as well as having strong rules regarding inspections of fracking sites.
- Allowing local communities to keep companies from fracking near their homes by allowing them to set strong planning and zoning rules.
Lawsuit in Canada
Many fracking opponents have focused on one case in particular. A scientist in Canada has sued Alberta, government regulators and Encana, one of Canada’s largest shale drillers. She claims fracking has caused a fracturing in the aquifer that supplies the rural town of Rosebud, Alberta, with drinking water.
The case is now expected to come before the Canadian Supreme Court. Jessica Ernst, who filed the lawsuit, has a blog about the case.