How Fracking Affects You

Can fracking make you rich? Can it make you sick? Does it cause earthquakes? Read on. And don’t miss Suzanna Andrews’s profile of environmental activist Sharon Wilson--read it here

by Nanette Varian • executive features editor { View Profile }
gas rig image
Photograph: Courtesy of Calin Tatu/

Will fracking harm my water, air or soil? Shale gas has been promoted as a cleaner, greener energy option, and the increasing use of natural gas (as opposed to coal) does help account for America’s 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 to 2012, notes Andrew Holland in an article for the trade site Energy Trends Insider. A senior fellow for energy and climate policy at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, D.C., Holland adds that “while the U.S. has reduced its emissions, by exporting coal that is mined here, we are essentially outsourcing part of the emissions . . . The atmosphere does not care where greenhouse emissions come from.” And activists worry about chemical-laced fracking fluids and wastewater flowing back to the surface, leaking from cracks in the cement-and-steel-encased well pipes or seeping into soil and water supplies through waste spills and trucking or storage accidents. In 2010, Congress directed the EPA to study the impact of fracking on drinking water; preliminary reports have been released, but publication of the final version, once scheduled for 2014, now appears to be slated for 2016. Meanwhile, a study led by Duke University researchers looked at drinking water from 141 wells in the Northeast’s Marcellus Shale and found potentially explosive methane gas in 82 percent of the samples analyzed. (Ethane and propane were also found in higher concentrations at homes near fracking sites.) Researchers and activists are hoping the energy industry will work with them on baseline and follow-up testing to monitor conditions both before and after fracking comes to town.

Does fracking cause earthquakes? “More than 100,000 wells have been subjected to fracking in recent years, and the largest induced earthquake was magnitude 3.6, which is too small to pose a serious risk,” writes William L. Ellsworth, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, in the recent study “Injection-Induced Earthquakes,” published in the journal Science. Fracking wastewater that is disposed of by injection into deep wells, however, “poses a higher risk,” he writes, adding that several of the largest earthquakes in the middle of the country during 2011 and 2012 “may have been triggered by nearby disposal wells.” The largest, a magnitude 5.6 quake in central Oklahoma, destroyed 14 homes and injured two people. Only a small fraction of the country’s 30,000-plus wastewater disposal wells “appear to be problematic,” Ellsworth notes. But current regulations regarding wastewater disposal were designed to protect water from contamination and “do not address seismic safety,” he concludes, adding that further study is necessary to manage earthquake risk.

Don't miss Suzanna Andrews's profile of environmental activist Sharon Wilson, the controversial and unapologetically outrageous voice of the antifracking movement--read it here.

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