Fracking companies routinely claim that their practice is safe, and frequently point out that the chemicals they use are pumped deep underground where they cannot possibly seep into groundwater or otherwise pose a risk to human health. This simply isn’t true. As Chris Mooney points out, “If fracking is taken to refer to the entire process of unconventional gas drilling from start to finish, it is already guilty of some serious infractions. The massive industrial endeavor demands a staggering two to four million gallons of water for a single lateral well, as well as 15,000 to 60,000 gallons of chemicals.” (Mooney, 2011, p. 82) And these numbers are for a rather conservative drilling operation.
Not only is it impossible for fracking to be truly safe from a health perspective because of the chemicals used and the toxic or radioactive byproducts that are released from any gas or oil well, but the safety claims made by fracking companies regarding their operating procedures are also deeply flawed and sometimes downright deceitful. Fracking is “safe” in the same way that guns are theoretically safe, so long as everything works perfectly and there are absolutely no flaws or imperfections whatsoever (in either hardware or user). Fracking companies’ claims of safety are dependent upon perfect conditions in the underground terrain (no previous wells, no horizontal or diagonal fissures in the plate rock), as well as perfect integrity in the well (remember the BP blowout?), and perfect operating procedure on the part of employees. In actual practice, however, fracking is far from safe. Here is a quick overview of the dangers associated with fracking:
The chemicals used in fracking
Let’s start out with the one fact the industry can’t hide from: the toxic chemicals used in fracking. This chemical slurry, referred to as “slickwater” by the industry, is composed of freshwater mixed with sand and chemicals. It is also the lifeblood of the fracking operation. Actually determining what chemicals are used in fracking (and just as importantly, at what concentrations) involves playing a guessing game with oil companies. In the 2010 documentary Gasland, Josh Fox says that drilling companies refused to tell him what chemicals they were using, even though they are required to post this information for residents.
Among the dozen or so “fracking solutions” used by Halliburton are things like hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol and the bacteria killer glutaraldehyde. (Fischetti, 2010) Companies like Halliburton hide the concentrations of different chemicals used (which would allow others to determine the toxicity and henceforth the danger posed) by claiming such information is “intellectual property” that must be kept secret. So there’s no way to determine just how toxic this sludge is.
Fracking fluid is composed of around 99.5% freshwater and sand and 0.5% chemicals. (ibid) Yet over 1 million gallons, that still amounts to around 5,000 gallons of chemicals. Considering that one well can easily consume 60 million gallons of this fluid over its lifetime, that amounts to as much as 300,000 gallons of toxic chemicals per well. Ten bores, each with 5 stages, would require 50 million gallons of freshwater and 250,000 gallons of chemicals. Up to 12 bores might be drilled from a single well over the period of several years. (ibid) When you start to add these numbers up for well after well (at around a million active wells in the U.S. alone), you start to see what a dirty job fracking can be.
The toxic byproducts of fracking
Up to 40% of the mixture sent down the bore hole returns as a toxic, briny flowback fluid. (ibid) The other 60% disappears into the ground to be buried (we hope) where it will never seep out or cause problems (again, we hope). This flowback is stored in what frackers casually refer to as “evaporation ponds,” where this chemically-laced water is allowed to evaporate into the atmosphere, poisoning the air in the community.
This chemically-laced water shot down into the ground is toxic enough as it is. But when it comes back up it’s even worse, courtesy of the natural contaminants that are buried deep underground. These can include things like lead, methane, radon, sulfuric acid, and other naturally toxic chemicals. It also includes heavy metals like barium and benzene, which are not only toxic even in minute quantities, but are also somewhat radioactive.
As Paul Solotaroff writes, “When water bolts back to the surface after fracking, it’s laced with gases and salts and chemical waste, and it has to be trucked, in the hundreds of thousands of gallons, to disposal sites. There, the fluid sits and dissipates, the sediment sinking as the water thins – a process sometimes assisted by giant misters – until nothing is left but a bog – thick sludge, which is scooped up and trucked to land fills. …Seen from the air, these waste ponds resemble a kid’s watercolor tray, though the water turns shades not seen in any paint tube: Imagine melanoma as a liquid. …Where will all that poison go, and who will still be here to breathe and drink it?” (Solotaroff, 2015, p. 59)
Aside from fracking fluids, toxic emissions from wells themselves are another source of concern. After all, it’s not just oil that comes bubbling up from these holes in the ground; toxic gases come along for the ride as well. These toxic gases include things like hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This is one of the most dangerous gases released by drilling. Several rig workers have died after inhaling it in the past few decades, and in high enough concentrations, a single breath of it can be lethal.
Other safety concerns associated with fracking
Fracking also causes a number of other problems that won’t be discussed in this book, but which are concerning in their own right. These are:
- Man-made earthquakes
Fracturing the rocks deep underground routinely triggers earthquakes, something the fracking industry denied for the longest time. While most of these quakes are minor, they’ve been steadily climbing up the Richter scale. The fact that they happen so often means they can also cause a lot of property damage. One-hundred earthquakes of 3.0 to 3.5 magnitude can steadily destroy a structure.
- Water waste
Fracking uses an enormous amount of freshwater and turns it into toxic waste, and freshwater is something that is becoming an ever-precious commodity. Some areas of the United States are already running out of drinking water, and many farmer’s wells have run dry. As underground reservoirs continue to drop at an unsustainable rate, fracking is like a slap in the face towards water management.
- Environmental concerns
Aside from the chemicals used, fracking has made oil cheaper and more abundant. On the surface this probably seems like a good thing. To the average family’s wallet, it is. But looking at the long-term picture, it’s a disaster. We’re already dumping an unsustainable amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and cheap, abundant oil undercuts the speed of transformation to renewable energy and means more fossil fuels to be burned in the future, releasing that much more C02. Some environmentalists look at fracking as a death-blow to the planet. If the trend continues, we’re going to see an even bigger climatic disruption and sea-level rise than what has been forecasted.
- Fires & explosions
Methane and other chemicals can seep into houses and cause them to explode. There’s also the risk of fire or explosion at gas wells, which can endanger nearby homes.