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RisksofHydraulicFracturingintheUnitedStates

FionaWaller
FundamentalsofChemistryIII
November10th,2014

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Abstract
Hydraulicfracturingisthemostcosteffectiveandefficientwayofextractingshalegas,
anditistransformingtheenergyindustry,especiallyintheUnitedStates(Thompson,
2013).Scientistsandcompaniesareexploringfrackingbecauseconventionalnaturalgas
reservesarepredictedtobedepletedinonly48years(Esposito,2013).Shalegasisa
cleaneralternativetotraditionalfossilfuels,especiallycoal,becauseitdoesnotproduce
mercury,sulfurandashasbyproducts;inaddition,shalegasprovidestwicetheenergy
perunitofweightwithhalfthecarbonfootprintduringcombustioncomparedtocoal
(Cathlesetal,2012).Frackingispraisedforboostingtheeconomybycreatingjobsand
loweringnaturalgaspricesintheUS,andforstrengtheningUSenergyindependence
(Thompson,2013).However,whendocumentariessuchasGaslandbyJoshFoxfeatured
tapwatercatchingfireduetothepresenceofmethanefromanearbyfrackingsite,the
mediasportrayalandthepublicopinionoffrackingshiftednegatively.Thispaperwill
exploretheenvironmentalandhealthrisksoffracking,butalsopossiblesolutionstoits
impactondrinkingwater,airqualityandseismicactivity.

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Frackinghascaughtthemediasattentionduetoitseconomicbenefits,butalsoits
environmentalhazards.Frackinginvolvesdrillingdeepintoshalerockandinjecting
frackingfluidwater,sandandchemicalsintotheearthtocracktherockandallow
naturalgastoflowoutandbeused.Technologicaladvancementshaveimproved
horizontaldrillingandhydraulicfracturingsabilitytorecovergasintheUS.(Vidicetal,
2013).Asaresult,frackingisgrowingatarateof48%peryearintheUnitedStates,with
acorrespondinggrowingconcernaboutitsenvironmentalandhealthrisks(Esposito,
2013).Itisimportanttoexplorethehazardsoffracking,specificallythepossibilityof
contaminateddrinkingwater,degradedairquality,andfrackinginducedearthquakes,as
wellaspossiblesolutions,tofairlyevaluatethisenergyphenomenon.
Onethreattopublichealthisthepresenceofradioactivenuclidesindrinking
waterduetofracking.RadioactivenuclidesintheEarthscrustcanbereleasedintothe
environmentwhenfrackingfluidsarewithdrawnandtreated;radiumandradoncanbuild
upinsoilandsediment,andpossiblyendupindrinkingwaterifradioactivityisnot
monitored.AccordingtoBrown,frackingintheMarcellus,[aregionofsedimentary
rockinNewYork],hasadvancedsoquicklythatpublicunderstandingandresearchonits
radioactiveconsequenceshavelaggedbehind(2014).Thislackofregulationisagrave
concernsincetheMarcellushasveryhighuraniumcontent,withconcentrationsof
radium226exceeding10,000pCi/Linbrinetrappedintheshalesdepths(Brown,
2014).Brownalsocitesstudiesthatsuggest,thesaltierthewater,themoreradioactive
itis(2014).Thiscorrelationbetweensalinewaterandradioactivityisalarmingbecause,
duringtheflowbackperiod,asingleMarcelluswellwillproducearound200tonsofsalt
(Vidicetal,2013).Whenradioactivenuclidesarereleasedintotheenvironment,the

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resultisbioaccumulationofradiuminthelocalfoodweb(Brown,2014).Radonmayalso
bereleased,butsinceitisaninertgas,itdoesnotreactwithotherelements.Instead,
radonusuallyisreleasedintotheatmospherebeforeitcanreachconsumers.However,as
DukeUniversityresearcherAvnerVengoshpointedout,onceyouhaveareleaseof
frackingfluidintotheenvironment,youendupwitharadioactivelegacy(Brown,
2014).Thepossibilityofradioactivenuclidesleakingintodrinkingwatersourcesisareal
threatthatneedstobemonitored.
Thechemicalsinfrackinginjectionfluidsarehighlytoxic;ifreleasedintothe
environment,thesechemicalswouldposeahugerisktopublichealth.Frackingfluids
arecomprisedofvariouschemicals,suchasfrictionreducers,acidsandgellingagents
(Jacksonetal,2011).AccordingtotheDemocratCommitteeonEnergyandCommerce,
between2005and2009,14oftheleadingoilandgascompaniesusedfrackingfluid
containing750differentchemicals,manyofwhicharetoxicandthereforeregulatedby
theSafeDrinkingWaterAct.Forexample,benzene,toluene,xylene,andethylbenzene
wereusedin60frackingproducts;chronicexposuretothesechemicalscandamagethe
liver,kidney,andcentralnervoussystem(DemocratCommittee,2011).Inaddition,21.9
milliongallonsoffrackingfluidcontaining2butoxyethanolwhichcancausehemolysis
anddamagetheliver,spleenandbonemarrowwereusedduringthistimeframe
(DemocratCommittee,2011).Finally,manyhydraulicfracturingcompaniesuseddiesel
fuelintheirfrackingfluids,whichcontainstoxicchemicals;a2004EPAreportstated
thatusingdieselfuelinthiswayisthegreatestthreattodrinkingwatersources
undergroundbecauseitcontainsmanytoxicchemicals,includingbenzene,toluene,
xylene,andethylbenzene(DemocratCommittee,2011).Thiscollectionofrawdata

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indicatesthatdrinkingwaternearfrackingsitesmustbecarefullymonitored.Ifleaks
occurandanyofthesechemicalsescapesintodrinkingwater,peoplelivinginthearea
wouldbeatrisk.
Althoughwastewaterproducedbyhydraulicfracturinggoesthroughatreatment
process,thishazardouswastewatercanmigrateintodrinkingwatersources.After
fracking,theinjectedfluidsareextractedandsenttoaninjectionwellorreused(Brown).
Mostoftenthough,thewaterisnotreusedduetothehighexpense;instead,90%of
wastewaterisdumpedinadisposalwellofwhichthereare150,000intheUnitedStates
(Esposito,2013).Treatingtheleftoverfluidsfromfrackingthroughoneoftheseinjection
wellsisdangerousbecausethefluidscanmigrateintofreshwateraquifersthrough
naturallyoccurringpathways.However,sincefrackingbegan,therehasonlybeenone
documentedcaseofgroundwaterpollutionduetotreatingfrackingfluidsthrough
injection(Vidicetal,2013).Despitethegoodtrackrecordsofar,thepossibilityoftoxic
wastewaterescapinginjectionwellsandinfectingdrinkingwaterisreal.
Inconclusion,thefluidsextractedfromtheearththroughfrackingmaybe
radioactive,andtheinjectedfluidsthemselvesarehighlytoxic.Ifeitherwastewateror
frackingfluidleakintogroundwater,theycouldcontaminatedrinkingwaterandalso
harmecosystemsinthearea.
Frackingproductscontainchemicalssuspectedofdegradingairqualityand
thereforeharminghumanhealth.Commonchemicalsusedinhydraulicfracturing
productsincludemethanol(anairpollutant),isopropylalcohol,2butoxyethanol,and

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ethyleneglycol(SeeTable1,DemocratCommittee2011).TheEPAmonitors187air
pollutantsthatmaycausecancerorbirthdefects;hydraulicfracturingcompaniesused
595productscontaining24differenthazardousairpollutantsbetween2005and2009
(DemocratCommittee,2011).NotmentionedinTable1arehydrogenfluoride,lead,
formaldehyde,hydrogenchlorideandethyleneglycol,allofwhichwereusedinfracking
fluidsandarehazardousairpollutants.67,222gallonsofhydrogenfluoridewereused;
hydrogenfluoridecanbefatalandishighlycorrosive.780gallonsoflead,whichcan
causereproductiveproblemsandnervedisorders,werealsousedinfrackingproducts.
Between2005and2009,13carcinogensappearedin95productsusedbyfracking
companies,includingnaphthalene,benzene,andacrylamide.Thesestatisticsare
alarmingbecauseiffrackingproductscontainingthesetoxicairpollutantsescapeintothe
environment,theeffectonpublichealthwouldbecatastrophic.
Notonlyarefrackingproductscapableofdamagingpublichealth,butmethane
extractedthroughfrackingcanalsoescapeintotheenvironment.Theimpactonair
qualityduetofrackingisdiscussedinCathlesetal.scommentaryonastudybyHowarth
called,Thegreenhousegasfootprintofnaturalgasinshaleformations(2011).
Howarthsstudycitesthat3.67.9%ofthemethanefromashalegaswellendsup,
unburned,intheatmosphere.Cathlesetal.arguesthattheupperpercentageisbasedon
limitedandinaccuratedata,butdoesadmitthatthelowerestimateof3.6%isconsistent
withtheEPA(2011)methaneleakagerateof~2.2%(2011).Methaneiswidelyknown
asagreenhousegasthatisbadfortheenvironment.Notonlyarefrackingchemicals
harmfultohumanhealth,butthemethanethatfrackingextractsalsonegativelyimpacts
theenvironment.

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Frackingisalsosuspectedofinducingearthquakes,whichmaybereflectedinthe
increaseofearthquakesinrecentyears(seeFigure2).Earthquakescanbeinducedby
impoundmentofwaterinreservoirs,surfaceandundergroundmining,withdrawalof
fluidsandgasfromthesubsurface,andinjectionoffluidsintoundergroundformations
(USGS,2014).Forexample,the2011Oklahomaearthquakewasmostlikelycausedby
injectioninducedseismicity(USGS,2014).Hydraulicfracturingisoftenblamed;
however,frackingproducesmicroearthquakesofmagnitudesbelow2,whichisnot
enoughtoinduceanearthquake(Ellsworth,2013).Noresearchhasdirectlylinked
frackingandearthquakes;thislackofclaritysuggeststhatinjectionsitesshouldbemore
closelymonitoredforseismicactivitytoensurethatfrackingisnotresponsibleforthe
recentincreaseinearthquakes.
Despitethealarmingpossibilityoffrackingseffectondrinkingwater,airquality
andearthquakes,therearesolutions.Jacksonetal.,forexample,posessolutionstothe
issueofdrinkingwatercontamination:monitorwaterqualityonsitebeforefracking
beginstodeterminetherealsourceofharmfulchemicals,andfindthebestwaytotreat
anddisposeofwastewaterfromfracking(2011).Itisalsopossibletoexplorenew
frackingfluidsthatarelesstoxic.Halliburton,forexample,hascreatedfrackingfluid
containingchemicalsregulatedbythefoodindustry,notthechemicalindustry(Esposito,
2013).Anothercompany,GASFRACEnergyServices,usesafrackingfluidwitha
recyclablegelinsteadofwater(Esposito,2013).Conservingfreshwaterbyusingagelis
importantbecause,accordingtotheUnitedStatesAccountabilityOffice,oilandgas
wellsintheUnitedStatesproduceatleast9billionlitersofcontaminatedwaterperday

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(Esposito,2013).Theseinnovativesolutionsallowfrackingproductstobenontoxicto
humansandtheenvironment,andtheyalsopreventfreshwaterdepletion.For
degradationofairquality,itisimportanttoquantifyexactlyhowmuchmethaneis
releasedasagreenhousegasduetofracking(Jacksonetal,2011).Inaddition,the
governmentshouldcrackdownoncompaniesforusingknowntoxicchemicalsandair
pollutantsintheirfrackingproducts.Forearthquakes,itisimportanttomonitorand
reporthowmuchandhowoftenwastewaterisinjected,andtolookforcorrelation
betweenseismicactivityandinjections(USGS,2014).
Thispaperexploredthepossibilityofhydraulicfracturingaffectingdrinking
water,airquality,andseismicactivity.Thechemicalsinfrackingfluiditself,butalsothe
fluidsextractedfromtheEarthintheprocess,canposeriskstohumanhealthandthe
environment.Humancarcinogensandgreenhousegases,ifreleasedduringfracking,
wouldhavesimilarnegativeeffectsonairquality.Itisalsoimportanttomonitorseismic
activityneardrillingandinjectionsites,sinceearthquakeshaveincreasedinrecentyears.
However,foraccurate,peerreviewedresearchontheeffectsoffrackingtobesuccessful,
thereneedstobereliablebaselineinformationonconditionsbeforefrackingstarts,and
alsomorefundingforresearch(Vidicetal,2013).Withincreasedregulationand
research,companies,thepublicandthemediamaybegintobetterunderstandthis
methodofextractingshalegas.

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Source:DemocratCommittee,2011

Figure2;Source:Ellsworth,2013
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