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/

Natural gas has been “fracked”—released by fracturing shale rock with pressurized water—since the 1940s. But with the recent addition of a powerful new horizontal drilling technology, fracking has boomed, along with hopes for America’s energy independence. There are an estimated 665 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable” shale gas under our feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the White House boasts that domestic oil and natural gas production has “increased every year since President Obama has been in office,” adding that in 2012, “natural gas production reached an all-time high.” (Click here for a map of U.S. shale "plays.") But while few people would argue against the concept of an abundant domestic fuel source, some feel the fracking “gold rush” is being encouraged without enough research into its effects on health, land and the environment. The practice has been banned in France and Bulgaria, and has triggered protests in other nations. Here, answers to some frequently asked questions:

Can fracking make me rich? Some homeowners have earned hefty signing bonuses and a regular royalty income for allowing extraction on their land. According to an article on the trade site Oil & Gas Monitor, signing bonuses in shale-rich Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, for example, leapt from $2 to $5 per acre, prior to 2000, to $5,000 to $10,000 per acre by 2012. Royalties—a percentage of the income earned from extracted gas—are paid monthly or quarterly.


Antifracking activist Sharon Wilson, who is profiled in More's September issue, at first welcomed fracking as an opportunity to strike it rich. She owned 50 percent of the mineral rights to her Texas property—all that was available at the time she bought her land. In 2008 an energy company offered her a $20,000 signing bonus plus a 20 percent royalty (about $1,200 a month) to extract gas from her land. But royalities can fluctuate over time—Wilson now receives $800 a month—and recent lawsuits have accused energy firms of shortchanging landowners. In some instances, fracking on your land (or on your neighbors’) can negatively affect property value, says New York real estate and environmental lawyer Elisabeth Radow. For more on mineral rights and property value, see "Do You Own What’s Under Your Home?"

Will fracking make me sick? “Too often citizen testimonies of health effects . . . are dismissed as anecdotal,” writes Wilson and her coauthors in Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety, a report they produced for the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Earthworks. “But when so many citizens across almost two dozen [Texas] counties report similar complaints and symptoms associated with gas drilling, something is wrong.” Illnesses reported in Flowback (and from fracking sites around the country) include asthma, nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and rashes, along with the death of pets and farm animals. Activists and some legislators have been calling for more thorough testing of fracking’s potential effects and fuller disclosure about the composition of fracking fluids. Why is so little currently known? Since 2005, the industry has been exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and similar legislation, meaning companies can avoid disclosing the exact chemical mix by saying that it is a trade secret.

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.

For more on mineral rights and property value, see "Do You Own What’s Under Your Home?"

Image courtesy of Calin Tatu/

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First Published Tue, 2013-08-06 14:49

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