Is fracking dangerous? The short answer is yes.
Fracking (short for “hydraulic fracturing”) is the oil and gas industries’ highly controversial process for retrieving natural gas from deposits in shale rock 6,000 to 10,000 feet (or one to two miles) beneath the surface of the earth. Highly pressurized water, mixed with a veritable gumbo of highly toxic chemicals and sand, is injected into the “well,” creating a chemical reaction that opens fissures in the shale. Natural gas escapes through the fissures and is drawn back up the well to the surface, where it is processed, refined and shipped to market.
Gee! What could possibly go wrong? Let’s start with the fracking mixture, which is made up of highly corrosive and carcinogenic chemicals. It seems reasonable to regulate the chemicals that make up this mixture, but the industry considers that information a trade secret—and, of course, the government and courts have supported that position.
We do know that there are approximately 600 different chemicals that the industry can choose from. These include methane, benzene and toluene (all of which are considered toxic under the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act), plus diesel fuel, lead, sulfuric acid and formaldehyde, just to name a few. Not all 600 chemicals are used in a single injection (or frack). The industry asserts that only five to 10 chemicals are used per frack, and this makes a difference because, presumably, there is safety in using fewer chemicals. But whatever the concoction, there can be from 80 to 300 tons of these chemicals used in each injection. What the industry also fails to mention is that, although a fracking well may be host to “only” 300 tons of hazardous chemicals, a fracking minefield contains thousands of wells, all using different compounds, amassing an enormous cumulative effect.
The industry may insist that the fracking process itself is not dangerous, but the components used in the process definitely cause problems. In Pennsylvania, inspectors found that nearly 1 in 10 wells had faulty cement and steel casings, making them prone to leaks and contamination.
Because these drilling sites are not only vertical, but also travel horizontally—sometimes for miles—the risk presented by these faulty “components” is greatly increased. A Pennsylvania study shows this risk has increased since 2009 with the growth of the fracking boom, and that the depth and breadth of the wells has increased as well. How can the components of fracking be separated from the safety of the process?
Fracking presents levels of potential contamination never experienced before—and, increasingly, water is the victim. Wastewater, called “flowback water” or “produced water,” returns to the surface after the fracking process is completed. There is no known way to effectively dispose of it. Some of this water is reused, but that only delays the ultimate problem. Some of it is pumped into even deeper injection wells, which, according to Dr. Bill Chameides of Duke University, causes “an earthquake every now and again.”
The only other known way to dispose of this wastewater would be to treat it. But the technology has not kept up with the industry here. Highly sophisticated processes are required, and, to date, none have proven effective.
Beyond the issues of water contamination and wastewater disposal, the sheer quantity of water used is enormous. Two to eight million gallons of water are used per frack. These millions of gallons are used across minefields, which can be populated by thousands of mines, and each fracking well can be used repeatedly. It’s no wonder that water-usage calculations can’t be found in the research. The industry doesn’t know—or perhaps it’s willfully ignorant.
Moreover, rarely do fracking minefields have access to that quantity of water; it has to be brought in, mostly by truck. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, each frack requires 400 to 600 tanker trucks for each well and another 200 to 300 tanker trucks to take away the liquid waste from that frack.
The potential for disaster is consistently minimized or dismissed entirely. However, it’s not corporations who will live with the contamination or pay to try to clean it up—we will. Earlier in September, John Gladden, a retired research manager and fracking foe, told commissioners in North Carolina what the average person seems to understand, but the industry chooses to ignore: “It’s cheaper to prevent contamination than to clean it up.”
Fracking operations are currently underway in at least 17 states. Sadly, Colorado—a state close to the hearts of all in the cannabis community—is second only to Texas in the number of fracking wells. Colorado may be enjoying a pop-culture grooviness because of legal weed, but its environmental policies leave a lot to be desired.
Many municipalities are challenging the frackers, but the government and corporations have put up many roadblocks. As human beings—and, in particular, as human beings who smoke pot—it is our responsibility to support these challenges, in Colorado and across the nation. Legal cannabis production and retail sales may usher in a new viable industry, but let’s never forget that it’s completely reliant on clean water.