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What is fracking and is it safe for the environment?

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process through which oil or natural gas is extracted from below the surface of the earth by drilling wells. The topic of fracking has been passionately contested, especially in the United States.

While the advocates of fracking insist that it is an environmentally safe process and even economical, critics of this process say that fracking causes considerable damage to the groundwater resources; causes air pollution; and contributes to the process of global warming. Through this write up, we wish to explore the topic in detail and understand its pros and cons. Let us first start by knowing how fracking actually takes place.

The ABCs of fracking

Fracking takes places mainly through the process of drilling – one, a vertical bore well and another, a horizontal bore well. The process starts by digging a vertical bore well that is 1-2 miles deep or is slightly tilted at an angle. This vertical bore well is enclosed in steel or cement or both in order to prevent the contents of the bore well to leak into the surrounding groundwater. Once the vertical bore well has reached its desired depth where the oil or natural gas exists, the horizontal well is dug, which is curved by 90 degrees from the vertical well. The length of this horizontal bore well can be of one mile. After the wells are dug and the layer of oil or gas is reached, fracking liquid is pumped into the well at an enormous pressure. Due to this high pressure, the surrounding rock layer in the horizontal well gets fractured and creates cracks through which oil or gas flows.

The liquid that is pumped into the fracking well at an extremely high pressure is known as slickwater. It is mainly water, however it can contain various other additives like detergents, alcohols, lubricants, etc. The amount of additives in slickwater ranges from 0.5%-2%, while the rest 98% is pure water. In addition to the water and chemicals, ceramic particles and sand are also introduced into the fracking well. These substances are used to open up the rock fractures, so that oil and gas can flow freely through the fractured rocks even after the pressure is released. Once the gas starts flowing from the fissured rock to the well, along with it flowback liquid also starts flowing into the well. This flowback liquid consists of water and other contaminants like radioactive materials, hydrocarbons and other toxins. This flowback or wastewater is stored in pits on the ground and then is disposed of by treating it in a waste water facility.

The pros and cons of fracking

Even though fracking is being used worldwide, there is a recent boom of this process in the United States over concerns of energy security and high import cost associated with the import of oil from other countries. People who support fracking claim that it is a clean method of extracting oil and gas and due to fracking, United States can meet its energy needs for decades to come. However, the opponents of fracking claim that the fracking process has serious side effects such as groundwater contamination, air pollution, surface water pollution and adverse health effects. In addition to this, due to the fracking process, contaminants like benzene are released into the air. Benzene is a known carcinogen, and causes birth defects as well. Another area of concern is the rising seismic activity due to the fracking process and areas in the United States that were not seismically active – such as Ohio and Oklahoma – are now experiencing relatively high seismic activity. One of the strongest recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma in the year 2011 was blamed on fracking.

However, the supporters of fracking suggest that fracking has been successfully used since the year 1947 and more than 1.2 million wells have undergone the process of fracking in the United States alone. In addition, the premise that fracking causes groundwater contamination is wrong and this is proved by the various studies conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also, the proponents of fracking say that fracking has brought energy security to the United States and the oil and gas industry generates about US$ 1.2 Trillion for the US economy and supports 9.8 million jobs. Hence, fracking is considered as economically viable and is being successfully implemented all across the United States.

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