What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a destructive and dangerous process of extracting oil and methane gas from shale rock formations deep underground that uses vast quantities of water. This method of fossil fuel extraction takes place at a well where “fracking fluid,” a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, is injected into the earth at high pressure. The high-pressure liquid fractures the shale rock formation and the silica sand props the cracks open releasing the oil and gas inside.
Fracking is a newer unconventional extraction method where a well is drilled into the earth vertically but operations extend horizontally out from the well pad. This type of fracking well can extend thousands of feet horizontally from the initial well pad. Fracking takes place in shale plays across the US including in Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana. The largest of these producers are in the Permian Basin, the largest oil producing basin in the world. While fossil fuel corporations and politicians repeat narratives of energy independence, much of what is extracted is exported and used to create plastics rather than heat homes.
link map: https://oilandgasthreatmap.com/threat-map/
Despite what fossil fuel corporations say, fracking cannot be done safely. The process of fracking, the methane gas and oil extracted, and the associated waste are all a threat to local communities and our global climate. Research compiled by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York found “no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly and without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.”
Fracking operations have been found to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hazardous air pollutants, and toxins with over 200 airborne chemical contaminants detected near drilling and fracking sites. Common air pollutants include benzene, methane, toluene, ethylbenzene, nitrogen oxide, xylenes, ethane, and propane. Of the 200+ contaminants, 61 were classified as hazardous air pollutants (including carcinogens) and 26 were endocrine disruptors linked to reproductive, developmental, and neurological damage.
Drilling and fracking operations emit fine particles and vapors that when combined, create ground-level ozone or smog, Exposure to smog is known to contribute to poor birth outcomes and increased rates of hospitalization and emergency room visits, exacerbate asthma attacks, heart attacks, respiratory problems, and other serious health concerns, even causing premature death. These pollutants don’t just impact the local community, they can travel up to 60 miles away from the site impacting communities and causing health impacts.
While the production phase of operations typically emits the highest levels and the largest mixture of hazardous air pollutants over the longest period of time, equipment and associated infrastructure such as condensate tanks, wastewater pits, and flare stacks are also a source of air pollutants.
The process of fracking requires large quantities of freshwater to create the frack fluid that is injected into the ground. Each time a well is fractured it takes 2-10 million gallons of water creating a huge strain on areas where water is scarce such as the Permian Basin in West Texas.
The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempts fracking from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Because of this exemption, fracking chemicals are protected from public evaluation as “trade secrets.” In most states where fracking takes place, the routine monitoring of groundwater aquifers near drilling and fracking operations is not required and companies are not required to fully disclose what chemicals and how much are used in fracking fluid. The oil and gas industry is the only US industry permitted to inject hazardous materials into or near drinking water aquifers.
What is known about the chemicals in fracking fluid isn’t good—of the more than 1,000 chemicals confirmed to be in fracking fluid an estimated 100 are known endocrine disruptors and 48 potentially carcinogenic. Once underground the water is further contaminated by heavy metals and radioactive elements that naturally exist in the shale and pose a massive risk when brought back up to the surface. Once this radioactive material is brought back to the surface, it poses the risk of spills, can be dumped into rivers and other bodies of water, and even used to clear roads. A 2020 study identified 1,198 chemicals in oil and gas wastewater, of which 86 percent lack toxicity data sufficient to complete a risk assessment.
Fracking fluid and the toxic chemicals found in waste pose a threat to both surface and groundwater. A 2017 study found that spills of fracking fluids and fracking wastewater are common, documenting 6,678 significant spills occurring over a period of nine years in four states alone. In these states, between 2 and 16 percent of wells report spills each year. About five percent of all fracking waste is lost to spills, often during transport.
In addition to the air and water pollution, fracking operations also cause earthquakes, creating a growing problem in areas in Texas and New Mexico where fracking is prevalent such as Dallas, Denton Balmorhea, Carlsbad, and more. The fracking operations in the Eagle Ford Shale have experienced some of the highest magnitude fracking caused earthquakes with some reaching the magnitude of 5.0. These earthquakes are particularly caused by the disposal of fracking waste in underground injection wells.
Fracking also creates other health concerns for nearby residents. Drilling and fracking operations expose residents to light and noise pollution that can last several months. This light and noise pollution can include blasting, drilling, flaring, generators, compressor stations, and truck traffic. Exposure to light and noise pollution is linked to adverse health effects including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and sleep disturbance.
Fracking operations also increase stress and community health. In Denton, Texas, residents reported increased levels of stress and anxiety compared to periods of time prior to the arrival of fracking in their community. Residents expressed concerns about the environmental health of the community, increased prevalence of personal ailments and physical disorders, and feelings of helplessness linked to lack of response from government officials.
Fracking waste is radioactive and also extremely dangerous. Fracking waste is exempt from EPA regulations on hazardous waste however when it was exempted in 1988, the agency concluded that it contains toxic substances that would qualify the waste as hazardous and pose a risk to health and the environment, such as benzene, lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium. Research has found toxic chemicals in oil and gas waste which was disposed of in injection wells, discharged into rivers and streams, solid waste created during drilling, and fracturing fluids from the well sites.
In Texas, state law prevents local governments from prohibiting oil and gas waste disposal within their communities. This radioactive waste is also currently disposed of through waste pit burials, discharged on waterways, and spread over land. Groundwater aquifers are also exempted from protections so oil and gas companies can inject waste nearby for underground disposal. Disposal of this hazardous, radioactive waste has contaminated soil and drinking water for communities across the nation.
There is currently no safe way to store and dispose of fracking waste. Even when the waste is put into injection wells underground it continues to create toxic air pollution, contaminated water, and cause earthquakes.
Despite industry talking points, fracking doesn’t result in benefits to local communities. Fracking is viewed with economic optimism, but the profit made from fracking doesn’t stay local. Research has found that the large profits for industry don’t trickle down to the residents living in production counties but rather that profit benefits a relative few over a temporary period of time. In the case of the Eagle Ford shale, a 2018 analysis found that individuals and energy companies located outside of the region held 96 percent of Eagle Ford’s mineral wealth.
Not only does fracking not bring long term economic benefits to local communities but it actually costs communities from healthcare costs, road damages, denuded landscapes and decreased property values, loss of species, and damages from construction, explosions, and other aspects of operations.
Risk to workers
Fracking is also a bad deal for workers. Drilling and fracking jobs have a fatality rate that is 4 to 7 times the national average and are some of the most dangerous jobs in the US. Additionally, irregularities in reporting mean that the counts of on the job fatalities among workers are likely underreported. The most recent data available from 2018 found that 94 oil and gas extraction workers died on the job – an increase from 81 in 2017. A 2020 study also found that out of all industries workers employed in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction had the highest suicide rate.
2017 data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fatalities from the Oil and Gas Extraction Industry (FOG) database found Texas was the state with the most fatalities. Upstream drilling and fracking operations are exempt from the safety rules that apply to all downstream sectors of the oil and gas industry including rules that require petrochemical plants, refineries, and other high hazard operations to adopt procedures to prevent fires, chemical leaks, and explosions. A special report by the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of labor statistics detailed a number of specific oil and gas industry deaths in Texas, highlighting the various preventative and regulatory failures associated with traumatic injury; exposure to toxic gases, including hydrogen sulfide; and blowout risk and fires.
Working in fracking and drilling operations also has the potential for long term impacts on workers. Exposure to silica particles or dust from the frac sand can cause silicosis, a progressive, autoimmune disease that scars lung tissue and restricts the ability to breathe. A special report in the Journal of Environmental Health predicted a future cluster of silicosis among well pad workers, noting that research has already identified “unacceptable levels” of silica dust in air samples collected at fracking operations and that workers are seldom offered appropriate respiratory equipment to prevent exposure.
Workers are also regularly exposed to toxic air emissions at the well pad, including benzene, a known carcinogen. Regular exposure to benzene causes blood cancers in workers. Research from the NIOSH has found quantities of benzene exceeding federal regulations at fracking sites. However, as fracking and many other oil and gas operations are exempt from laws protecting workers these sites are also exempt from NIOSH’s benzene standard. Rather than protect their workers, companies have them sign nondisclosure forms and give them a settlement.
Flaring and Climate Impacts
The methane gas extracted by fracking is often portrayed as “clean bridge fuel” and more climate friendly than burning coal. However, unlike coal which produces carbon dioxide when burned, fracked gas creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is much worse for the climate. According to the IPCC, methane is 86 times worse than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period.
[LINK OGI FOOTAGE — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KmP_TjqDMs]
Methane isn’t just released into the atmosphere when the gas is burned. Methane is emitted when a well is drilled, a well is fracked (including venting, flaring, and blowdowns), the extracted gas is compressed into pipelines, the gas is transported via pipeline, and after wells are plugged or abandoned.
Regulations are not the solution for this crisis. The true amount of methane emitted is much higher than our estimates. Recent analysis by Earthworks concluded that 75% of observed flares in Texas were unpermitted. EDF also estimates that 1 in 10 flares in the Permian Basin are malfunctioning, or unlit and venting. Because these flares aren’t fully combusting they release comparatively high levels of methane as well as VOCs such as benzene, a carcinogen, into our atmosphere.
Even if tighter regulations were passed and then enforced, fracking can not be done safely.
Cycle of harm
The dangers of fracking do not end with extraction. After the oil and gas are fracked they are stored, transported, processed, burned, and used to create petrochemical products. Fracking is the first step in the fossil fuel economy that is threatening communities and ecosystems across the region.