Negative Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing

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23rd Sep 2019 Environmental Studies Reference this

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Ever since the 1950’s hydraulic fracturing has increased in use in the oil and gas industry. Although the process first called for vertical wells, as we move closer to the present, we can see that the use of horizontal wells has become far more commonplace. These hydraulic fracturing sites, some being situated by community, homes, and towns has many theorists worried about the effects that the environment may potentially incur. Some scholars believe that larger hydraulic fracturing sites have the ability to affect nearby tectonic plates, and consequently can contribute to seismic activity. Furthermore, because of contamination incidents, researchers have linked multiple health issues to the fracking process itself. However, despite the questionable effects of hydraulic fracturing, other scholars have found advantages to the industry. Not only that, multiple studies, like David Spence’s study on shale gas regulation, have argued that further adjustment should occur at the state level rather than the federal level because it may be a more effective process of regulating the industry (2014). I agree with Spence that states should oversee the industry individually, rather than nationally. And if the states are to regulate efficiently, I would argue that they should focus primarily on the legislature concerning wastewater because of the issues that it can create.

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To begin, it is important for us to understand how the oil and gas industry has become so influential in today’s society and how technological advancements in the industry have the potential to affect the environment and our health. One of the most critical changes was the first employment of vertical wells in 1891 (Helms 2008). While this was revolutionary for the industry, the well was still inefficient at collecting oil, so naturally numerous companies decided to develop more technology and better processes of oil and gas extraction. Decades of research and progress had amounted to the invention of the horizontal well, first used in 1929. Although these wells have multiple benefits such as better recovery of released oil and an increased drainage platform, harmful components of the hydraulic fracturing process, like frack fluid, have become a source of concern for regulators of the industry (Ma, Geomech, zhao 2016). Furthermore, these elements of the fracking process increased in use as the utilization of horizontal wells became more frequent, which resulted in health issues cropping up in nearby areas around the drill site, both for workers on the job and civilians. This area of incompetence, or in other words, holes in management leading to contamination incidents, has been a continual issue for multiple reasons; for example, an issue with horizontal drilling is that it is difficult to keep the site divided and isolated from the adjacent environment or community. Not only that, to combat these problems, multiple surveys have been conducted by organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency to view the origin of these errors. To this day, these qualities of hydraulic fracturing are still apparent in the industry and many issues that have occured have been linked to the main byproduct of fracturing: wastewater.

More importantly, what exactly are the issues and problems that have been linked to the hydraulic fracturing process? To start, hydraulic fracturing sites and even the disposal methods of wastewater have been shown to gradually affect tectonic plates and also increase the severity of local seismic activity. Because hydraulic fracturing requires, in order to extract oil and gas hidden deep within the Earth, the displacement of large amounts of rock, minerals, water, and anything else in the path of the target, the fracturing process is most likely the culprit. In fact, multiple studies have noticed an increase in seismic activity in an array of states with a high concentration of large fracturing sites. For example, Oklahoma from 1978 to 2008 experienced a negligible amount of annual earthquakes, averaging at about two a year or sixty in that entire thirty-year period (Boone, Robinson 2015). However, because the oil and gas industry had continued to implement more fracturing sites, by 2008 many states had at least one area of that displayed a high density of these wells. Because of this, from 2008 to 2014 the state experienced over two hundred quakes. This data is shocking because it shows us that Oklahoma’s seismicity nearly quadrupled, from sixty quakes in thirty years, to “207… recorded earthquakes” in a mere seven years (70). Furthermore, the disposal of wastewater, often composed primarily of frack fluid and radioactive materials that has been diluted into the wastewater, has also been hypothesized to have the potential to affect the stability of tectonic plates. In order to rid a well of wastewater, the water will either naturally flow through cracks and crevices in the disposal well, or be manually pushed by through these openings by applying surface pressure. However, this method of disposal, if you force the wastewater to drain or not, has been shown to cause even more seismic activity than the actual hydraulic fracturing process itself because of the pressure the wastewater applies to the drainage wells. This pressure not only increases the likelihood of earthquakes occurring but can also spread this seismicity miles away from the central drainage site (California Institute of Technology 2017). Wastewater, if continually drained at this rate, may result in severe seismic events. This data supports the claim that, in addition to Spence’s argument of state regulation being the most effective way to govern the oil and gas industry, it is essential for states to fixate on their respective legislation concerning wastewater.

Structural degradation is not the only thing we should worry about, unfortunately, because wastewater, from the fracking process has also been known to contaminate aquifers, water systems, and other water sources in close proximity, causing illness and disease in exposed victims. Although this phenomenon has been occurring for decades, the oil and gas industry still experiences frequent contamination incidents, witnessing, in a span of only five years, over “…21,000 individual spills [that included] over 175 million gallons of wastewater…” (Konkel, 2016: 1). These statistics emphasize the need we have for more control on the disposal operations of wastewater and also give us an idea of the frequency of contamination. Additionally, these instances of pollution mainly occur due to leaks in the well’s bore hole, an area of the site that transports the frack fluid, gas, and other chemicals used in the fracturing process. Speaking of chemicals, frack fluid is by far one of the most infamous ingredients in wastewater, because it is comprised of hundreds of deleterious chemicals, tens of which have been found to cause cancer alone, such as toluene and ethylbenzene (Greenpeace 2018; Maguire-boyle, Barron 2014). Not only that, wastewater can pick up radioactive materials like radium in the borehole, which causes the entire mixture of wastewater to become radioactive and even more detrimental in the case of pollution. Along with this information, numerous studies have also located evidence that proves the claim that this wastewater can be harmful to our biological systems such as the nervous and cardiovascular system. Something even more staggering is that most oil and gas industry employees will, at some point, be exposed to this material because of a side effect of fracturing, referred to as “flowback,” that causes up to 80% of all the wastewater that was forced into the hole to surge back onto the job site, which creates a mess of deleterious water. If states individually focused on stricter regulations on the amount of wastewater that could be used by a hydraulic fracturing site, or on the thickness of the well’s seal and casing thickness, for example, these health hazards could be minimized.

Despite the degenerating consequences of hydraulic fracturing, various individuals have discovered boons in the corporation that not only benefit the economy but also the financial state of consumers. Two researchers, Hausmen and kellogg, ascertained that the oil and gas industry has actually lowered gas prices by increasing the rate of hydraulic fracturing from 2007 to 2013 (2015). To paraphrase their argument, they expressed how this decrease in price reciprocally aids consumers by saving them around two-hundred dollars a year, or 48 billion dollars country-wide, which, they conclude, has improved the economy. However, at an individual level, is this extraneous money experienced or noticed? And do Americans notice the change in prices? Either way, this number may not be very beneficial since the cost to dispose of the wastes produced, to protect or improve the environment, and even medical costs could easily outweigh any extra money saved from lowered gas prices. For example, a single water contamination incident in Dimock, Pennsylvania, caused by a leak of methane from the drill site, affected a total of fourteen households, crippling their water systems. Furthermore, the costs to install filtration devices and “vent stacks,” devices utilized to prevent methane build-up, for the mere fourteen buildings, was an impressive $109,000 “… in addition [to the $10,000 spent] on vent stacks…” (Dutzik, Ridlington, Rumpler 2012: 13). Unfortunately, this incident is representative of many cases involving water contamination and also shows us how expensive regulating this industry can become. Therefore, the economy may improve if states decide to direct the majority of their legislative attention towards the periodical incidents of contamination.

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Most importantly, to combat these distressing dilemmas that have propagated from the oil and gas industry, discussions on this issue have deduced that the industry should be further regulated, but only on a state level. On one hand, the federal laws pertaining to hydraulic fracturing, studies have shown, are effective at halting a substantial amount of instances of contamination, but on the other hand, because of the specific cases that erupt state to state, there are a plethora of individuals advocating for an expansion of state statutes rather than federal. One such individual, David Spence, has stated his opinion on the issue, arguing that “. . .we [should] let this process of state-level regulatory adjustment to continue…” in order to effectively stop local incidents of contamination (2). I agree with Spence’s claim, and I think we should expand upon his idea by having the states focus on wastewater contamination legislature first and foremost. Because of the factors of wastewater pollution that I have explained in this paper, including, but not limited to, drinking water contamination, health hazards, and the costs of maintaining the environment and infrastructure, I would assert the claim that the issue of wastewater contamination is the most paramount aspect of the fracking process and that it should be dealt with immediately. The reformations that may need to occur will vary from each state, since most states have different statutes that oversee the oil and gas industry; these laws ranging from specific to vague (Gagnon 2016). For example, Ohio, in 2010, needed to update their regulatory procedures, known as Senate Bill 165, after the area experienced multiple contamination issues linked to a corroded well casing and even improper seals while another state, Texas, has updated their regulations by increasing the distance that wells may operate by each other to decrease wastewater contamination. This is but one small instance of change that has been made in order to halt pollution from wastewater, and I predict further change will be needed to meet safety and health standards for nearby communities and the environment.

Who would have known that all of these issues would have sprouted from one drilling practice? It appears that the oil and gas industry, through its continual use of horizontal wells, has caused a multitude of wastewater contamination issues to occur. The difficulties of keeping the drill site of horizontal wells divided from the environment is one of the major contributors to wastewater pollution, and if no change is made, we can expect to see repeat incidents of water contamination, illness, and even an increase in local seismicity. Also, while some have found that the industry has the potential to improve the economy, I believe the costs to dispose of and maintain wastewater, and the expenses it takes to resolve contamination events severely outweigh the alleged economic benefits. Additionally, multiple studies in response to these issues have insisted that, in order for regulations to be more effective, they should be enhanced or edited by the states rather than by the federal government. However, in expansion to these critics of the industry, I would argue, because of the severity of wastewater, that we should focus on state’s regulatory laws pertaining to wastewater monitoring, disposal methods, etc. first to further protect the environment and neighboring communities.

References

Ever since the 1950’s hydraulic fracturing has increased in use in the oil and gas industry. Although the process first called for vertical wells, as we move closer to the present, we can see that the use of horizontal wells has become far more commonplace. These hydraulic fracturing sites, some being situated by community, homes, and towns has many theorists worried about the effects that the environment may potentially incur. Some scholars believe that larger hydraulic fracturing sites have the ability to affect nearby tectonic plates, and consequently can contribute to seismic activity. Furthermore, because of contamination incidents, researchers have linked multiple health issues to the fracking process itself. However, despite the questionable effects of hydraulic fracturing, other scholars have found advantages to the industry. Not only that, multiple studies, like David Spence’s study on shale gas regulation, have argued that further adjustment should occur at the state level rather than the federal level because it may be a more effective process of regulating the industry (2014). I agree with Spence that states should oversee the industry individually, rather than nationally. And if the states are to regulate efficiently, I would argue that they should focus primarily on the legislature concerning wastewater because of the issues that it can create.

To begin, it is important for us to understand how the oil and gas industry has become so influential in today’s society and how technological advancements in the industry have the potential to affect the environment and our health. One of the most critical changes was the first employment of vertical wells in 1891 (Helms 2008). While this was revolutionary for the industry, the well was still inefficient at collecting oil, so naturally numerous companies decided to develop more technology and better processes of oil and gas extraction. Decades of research and progress had amounted to the invention of the horizontal well, first used in 1929. Although these wells have multiple benefits such as better recovery of released oil and an increased drainage platform, harmful components of the hydraulic fracturing process, like frack fluid, have become a source of concern for regulators of the industry (Ma, Geomech, zhao 2016). Furthermore, these elements of the fracking process increased in use as the utilization of horizontal wells became more frequent, which resulted in health issues cropping up in nearby areas around the drill site, both for workers on the job and civilians. This area of incompetence, or in other words, holes in management leading to contamination incidents, has been a continual issue for multiple reasons; for example, an issue with horizontal drilling is that it is difficult to keep the site divided and isolated from the adjacent environment or community. Not only that, to combat these problems, multiple surveys have been conducted by organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency to view the origin of these errors. To this day, these qualities of hydraulic fracturing are still apparent in the industry and many issues that have occured have been linked to the main byproduct of fracturing: wastewater.

More importantly, what exactly are the issues and problems that have been linked to the hydraulic fracturing process? To start, hydraulic fracturing sites and even the disposal methods of wastewater have been shown to gradually affect tectonic plates and also increase the severity of local seismic activity. Because hydraulic fracturing requires, in order to extract oil and gas hidden deep within the Earth, the displacement of large amounts of rock, minerals, water, and anything else in the path of the target, the fracturing process is most likely the culprit. In fact, multiple studies have noticed an increase in seismic activity in an array of states with a high concentration of large fracturing sites. For example, Oklahoma from 1978 to 2008 experienced a negligible amount of annual earthquakes, averaging at about two a year or sixty in that entire thirty-year period (Boone, Robinson 2015). However, because the oil and gas industry had continued to implement more fracturing sites, by 2008 many states had at least one area of that displayed a high density of these wells. Because of this, from 2008 to 2014 the state experienced over two hundred quakes. This data is shocking because it shows us that Oklahoma’s seismicity nearly quadrupled, from sixty quakes in thirty years, to “207… recorded earthquakes” in a mere seven years (70). Furthermore, the disposal of wastewater, often composed primarily of frack fluid and radioactive materials that has been diluted into the wastewater, has also been hypothesized to have the potential to affect the stability of tectonic plates. In order to rid a well of wastewater, the water will either naturally flow through cracks and crevices in the disposal well, or be manually pushed by through these openings by applying surface pressure. However, this method of disposal, if you force the wastewater to drain or not, has been shown to cause even more seismic activity than the actual hydraulic fracturing process itself because of the pressure the wastewater applies to the drainage wells. This pressure not only increases the likelihood of earthquakes occurring but can also spread this seismicity miles away from the central drainage site (California Institute of Technology 2017). Wastewater, if continually drained at this rate, may result in severe seismic events. This data supports the claim that, in addition to Spence’s argument of state regulation being the most effective way to govern the oil and gas industry, it is essential for states to fixate on their respective legislation concerning wastewater.

Structural degradation is not the only thing we should worry about, unfortunately, because wastewater, from the fracking process has also been known to contaminate aquifers, water systems, and other water sources in close proximity, causing illness and disease in exposed victims. Although this phenomenon has been occurring for decades, the oil and gas industry still experiences frequent contamination incidents, witnessing, in a span of only five years, over “…21,000 individual spills [that included] over 175 million gallons of wastewater…” (Konkel, 2016: 1). These statistics emphasize the need we have for more control on the disposal operations of wastewater and also give us an idea of the frequency of contamination. Additionally, these instances of pollution mainly occur due to leaks in the well’s bore hole, an area of the site that transports the frack fluid, gas, and other chemicals used in the fracturing process. Speaking of chemicals, frack fluid is by far one of the most infamous ingredients in wastewater, because it is comprised of hundreds of deleterious chemicals, tens of which have been found to cause cancer alone, such as toluene and ethylbenzene (Greenpeace 2018; Maguire-boyle, Barron 2014). Not only that, wastewater can pick up radioactive materials like radium in the borehole, which causes the entire mixture of wastewater to become radioactive and even more detrimental in the case of pollution. Along with this information, numerous studies have also located evidence that proves the claim that this wastewater can be harmful to our biological systems such as the nervous and cardiovascular system. Something even more staggering is that most oil and gas industry employees will, at some point, be exposed to this material because of a side effect of fracturing, referred to as “flowback,” that causes up to 80% of all the wastewater that was forced into the hole to surge back onto the job site, which creates a mess of deleterious water. If states individually focused on stricter regulations on the amount of wastewater that could be used by a hydraulic fracturing site, or on the thickness of the well’s seal and casing thickness, for example, these health hazards could be minimized.

Despite the degenerating consequences of hydraulic fracturing, various individuals have discovered boons in the corporation that not only benefit the economy but also the financial state of consumers. Two researchers, Hausmen and kellogg, ascertained that the oil and gas industry has actually lowered gas prices by increasing the rate of hydraulic fracturing from 2007 to 2013 (2015). To paraphrase their argument, they expressed how this decrease in price reciprocally aids consumers by saving them around two-hundred dollars a year, or 48 billion dollars country-wide, which, they conclude, has improved the economy. However, at an individual level, is this extraneous money experienced or noticed? And do Americans notice the change in prices? Either way, this number may not be very beneficial since the cost to dispose of the wastes produced, to protect or improve the environment, and even medical costs could easily outweigh any extra money saved from lowered gas prices. For example, a single water contamination incident in Dimock, Pennsylvania, caused by a leak of methane from the drill site, affected a total of fourteen households, crippling their water systems. Furthermore, the costs to install filtration devices and “vent stacks,” devices utilized to prevent methane build-up, for the mere fourteen buildings, was an impressive $109,000 “… in addition [to the $10,000 spent] on vent stacks…” (Dutzik, Ridlington, Rumpler 2012: 13). Unfortunately, this incident is representative of many cases involving water contamination and also shows us how expensive regulating this industry can become. Therefore, the economy may improve if states decide to direct the majority of their legislative attention towards the periodical incidents of contamination.

Most importantly, to combat these distressing dilemmas that have propagated from the oil and gas industry, discussions on this issue have deduced that the industry should be further regulated, but only on a state level. On one hand, the federal laws pertaining to hydraulic fracturing, studies have shown, are effective at halting a substantial amount of instances of contamination, but on the other hand, because of the specific cases that erupt state to state, there are a plethora of individuals advocating for an expansion of state statutes rather than federal. One such individual, David Spence, has stated his opinion on the issue, arguing that “. . .we [should] let this process of state-level regulatory adjustment to continue…” in order to effectively stop local incidents of contamination (2). I agree with Spence’s claim, and I think we should expand upon his idea by having the states focus on wastewater contamination legislature first and foremost. Because of the factors of wastewater pollution that I have explained in this paper, including, but not limited to, drinking water contamination, health hazards, and the costs of maintaining the environment and infrastructure, I would assert the claim that the issue of wastewater contamination is the most paramount aspect of the fracking process and that it should be dealt with immediately. The reformations that may need to occur will vary from each state, since most states have different statutes that oversee the oil and gas industry; these laws ranging from specific to vague (Gagnon 2016). For example, Ohio, in 2010, needed to update their regulatory procedures, known as Senate Bill 165, after the area experienced multiple contamination issues linked to a corroded well casing and even improper seals while another state, Texas, has updated their regulations by increasing the distance that wells may operate by each other to decrease wastewater contamination. This is but one small instance of change that has been made in order to halt pollution from wastewater, and I predict further change will be needed to meet safety and health standards for nearby communities and the environment.

Who would have known that all of these issues would have sprouted from one drilling practice? It appears that the oil and gas industry, through its continual use of horizontal wells, has caused a multitude of wastewater contamination issues to occur. The difficulties of keeping the drill site of horizontal wells divided from the environment is one of the major contributors to wastewater pollution, and if no change is made, we can expect to see repeat incidents of water contamination, illness, and even an increase in local seismicity. Also, while some have found that the industry has the potential to improve the economy, I believe the costs to dispose of and maintain wastewater, and the expenses it takes to resolve contamination events severely outweigh the alleged economic benefits. Additionally, multiple studies in response to these issues have insisted that, in order for regulations to be more effective, they should be enhanced or edited by the states rather than by the federal government. However, in expansion to these critics of the industry, I would argue, because of the severity of wastewater, that we should focus on state’s regulatory laws pertaining to wastewater monitoring, disposal methods, etc. first to further protect the environment and neighboring communities.

References

  • Boone, W. H., & Robinson, M. B. 2015. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On: Recent Studies Link Fracking and Earthquakes.” Defense Counsel Journal, Jan, pp. 68-75.
  • Dutzik, T., Ridlington, E., Rumpler, J. 2012. The Cost of Fracking: the Price Tag of Dirty Drilling’s Environmental Damage. Environment America Research and Policy Center. Denver, Colorado: Environmental America Research and Policy Center. Retrieved May, 24 2018 (https://environmentamerica.org/sites/environment/files/reports/The%20Costs%20of%20Fracking%20vUS.pdf)
  • Greenpeace. 2018. “Fracking’s Environmental Impacts: Water.” Retrieved May 22, 2018 (https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/issues/fracking/environmental-impacts-water/)
  • Hausmen, C., Kellogg, R. 2015. Welfare and Distributional Implications of Shale Gas. Brookings Institute, Washington DC: Retrieved May 18, 2018 (https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/2015a_hausman.pdf)
  • Helms, L. 2008. “Horizontal drilling.” DMR newsletter, 35(1), 1-3. Retrieved May, 17 2018 (http://www.offshorecenter.dk/log/bibliotek/Horizantal%20drilling.PDF)
  • Konkel, L. 2016. “Salting the Earth: the Environmental Impact of Oil and Gas Wastewater Spills.” Environment Health Perspectives 124(12), 1 (https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/124-A230/)
  • Ma, T., Chen, P., and Zhao, J.. 2016. “Overview on vertical and directional drilling technologies for the exploration and exploitation of deep petroleum resources.” Geomechanics and Geophysics for Geo-Energy and Geo-Resources 2(4) (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40948-016-0038-y)
  • Maguire-Boyle, S., & Barron, A. 2014. “Organic compounds in produced waters from shale gas wells. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.” 16(10): 2237–2248. Retrieved May 22, 2018 DOI: 10.1039/C4EM00376D.
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 2018. “Hydraulic Fracturing and Health.” Retrieved May 20, 2018 (https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/fracking/index.cfm#footnote4)
  • Perkins, R. 2017. Modeling the Effects of Wastewater Injection. California Institute of Technology, California, Pasadena: Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. Retrieved May, 22 2018 (http://www.gps.caltech.edu/content/modeling-effects-wastewater-injection)
  • Spence, D. 2014. No Need for Federal .Regulation on Shale Gas Production. University of California. Austin, Texas: Energy Management and Innovation Center. Retrieved May, 24 2018 (https://www.mccombs.utexas.edu/~/media/Files/MSB/Centers/EMIC/Briefs/Energy-Brief-Is-It-Time-for-Federal-Regulation-of-Shale-Gas-Production.pdf)

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