February 17, 2024
Fracking Crude Oil
Fracking has allowed US oil producers to exploit fossil fuel reserves that were uneconomical even a decade ago. This lowered production costs and put downward pressure on oil prices.
But fracking has its downsides. It creates billions of gallons of wastewater, which contains chemicals that are then pumped into separate underground wells. These can cause tremors, particularly when the wastewater is disposed of near geologic faults.
Fracking involves pumping large volumes of water at high pressure down a well to fracture the rock that holds oil or gas. The fluid consists of water, sand and chemical additives that open and enlarge the fractures in order to release the trapped oil or gas. The additives often contain chemicals that are toxic to wildlife, including some known human carcinogens.
The hydraulic fracturing process usually begins with the drilling of long vertical or angled wells that can extend miles into the Earth. Steel pipes called casings are inserted into the well bore, and then perforations are drilled in them to allow the fracking fluid to flow through to the target formation.
After the fracking is completed, the used fracturing fluids return to the surface and are collected in pits or tanks at the well site. This fluid is called “flowback” or “produced water.” Flowback typically contains similar chemical compositions to the initial fracking fluid, while produced water has higher concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids and leaches out minerals from shale as well as extracted hydrocarbons and naturally occurring radioactive materials like radium isotopes.
Fracking is transforming our country’s energy landscape. It is boosting domestic oil production and weakening the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which has long dictated world oil prices.
But it also industrializes wild and rural landscapes, posing health risks for people and wildlife. Without rigorous safety regulations, it can poison water, pollute air, and destroy the land.
A separate problem is the disposal of billions of gallons of wastewater used in fracking each year. It contains chemicals that can enter surface and groundwater and may contain radioactive materials. The wastewater is often stored in open pits or leaking from pipelines, contaminating local environments. It may be injected into underground wells, where it can increase pressure on geologic faults and cause earthquakes.
It also can be burned off, or “flared,” at the well site, producing significant air pollution. The methane it releases into the air is a potent greenhouse gas that warms our planet.
In some states, where natural gas is available for use, the fracking process also is used to extract this fossil fuel. Often, as with oil wells, it involves drilling down to the rock formation before turning horizontally for a mile or more.
Once a hole has been drilled to the shale layer, a steel casing is inserted and then a small number of holes are punched through it with a “perforating gun.” This enables hydraulic fracturing to occur. Water, sand and chemicals are then pumped at high pressure through the holes to open up cracks in the shale.
This allows the methane trapped inside to escape into the air. This releases a potent greenhouse gas, which can contribute to climate change. And it creates huge quantities of wastewater, which can contaminate surface waters when transported, stored (open pits and tanks are known to leak or spill), recycled, or disposed of. This wastewater can be injected into underground wells, which has been linked to an increase in earthquakes, including the magnitude-5 tremor that occurred in Oklahoma in 2011. This practice has also been implicated in water pollution in other parts of the country.
The fracking industry uses huge amounts of water. Each well needs about 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water for fracking. This can strain local water supplies. Most of the water is freshwater from groundwater and surface water sources that also supply drinking water.
This water can contain contaminants that may harm the environment and human health. Chemicals used in fracking include biocides that kill germs, friction reducers, and weak acids that dissolve minerals and improve fracture formation. These chemicals can contaminate water and cause air pollution.
In addition, the fracking infrastructure can disrupt ecosystems. The roads and pipelines can fragment forests and rural landscapes, creating a network of industrial development that degrades wildlife habitat. The fracking wastewater also contains methane, which can escape into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Moreover, the wastewater is injected into underground wells, which can trigger earthquakes. This waste is not suitable for recycling, so it must be disposed of.