What the frack are you doing with my aquifer?

Once touted as the answer to U.S. energy consumers’ dreams, it is beginning to look like the natural gas extraction process known as “fracking” may be as much of an envionmental obscenity as the name suggests.

First, neighbors in the vicinity of fracking operations in Pennsylvania complained of wells contaminated by chemical effluent from the process, and of uncontrolled methane releases into the aquifer that could actually make the water combustible.

Those complaints were dismissed by the industry as unproven and the “selling” of fracking to the American people as an unlimited source of cheap energy continued unabated.

When initial concerns were raised that pressurized fracturing of substrates far beneath the surface might induce earthquakes, they too were met with derision by the industry.

Vermont became the first state to place a moratorium on the practice in 2012, followed by other states.  In June of this year,  North Carolina lifted its moratorim on fracking before even ensuring that promised rules were in place.

As this extraction method rapidly spreads across the country, the negative evidence is mounting, and it suggests that the practice is even more damaging than originally imagined.

Methane, the volatile fracking byproduct that featured spectacularly in the early news, is a gas with far more potential to hurry climate change than even CO2.  There are massive amounts of this powerful greenhouse gas sequestered deep in the earth, comprising the primary component of the “natural” gas and oil that are the desired products of fracking.  

Freeing the natural gas for collection also frees excess methane to do its worst.

As if that weren’t enough to worry about, states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, which have not been known as earthquake prone, are suddenly alive with seismic activity.  These also happen to be among the states where fracking has been most enthusiastically adopted, and a correlation is beginning to establish itself between fracking and increased risk of earthquake.  

The risk may be primarily associated with the “discard” phase of the process, in which waste water and chemicals from the fracturing phase are discarded through injection into deep concrete-lined wells.  

Investigation of the phenomenon is still in its early stages and it won’t be known for some time whether the fracturing itself contributes to seismic activity; however, there is little disagreement that some aspect of the process is directly linked to greater seismic instability in areas not previously known for earthquakes.

One more negative which must be weighed against any remaining argument for the practice, has to do with another frequent byproduct of fracking: radiation.  Of particular concern is radium,  substantially present in the eastern shale deposits which happen to be rich repositories of oil and gas and therefore ripe for fracking exploitation.  

The radiation liberated in the fracturing phase escapes with methane into the atmosphere, and doubles-down its contamination when tailings from the extraction process are dumped, ultimately finding their way into the aquifer.  Radium-226, one of the radioactive substances sequestered in the oil rich shale beds, has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Tar sands and fracking: the worst of the worst.

In our last desperate attempts to quench an unsustainable thirst for energy, it seems we will commit to the fires anything that will burn, even our bridges.

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

7 thoughts on “What the frack are you doing with my aquifer?

  1. Sue, natural gas is methane, or mostly methane. It doesn’t make sense to differentiate between the two.

    That said, methane as a greenhouse gas is about 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. This means that even a small rate of leakage in the drilling, extraction, and transportation of natural gas completely overwhelms its supposed advantage over coal.

    We may be seeing peak fracked gas in a few years anyway. Drilling companies are losing money at present prices and investors are fleeing. The only shale plays that are really making money are the oil producing wells; so called wet gas. In North Dakota, the supposed fracking boom state, only one county is really booming. Even the ever-over-optimistic EIA estimates that the fracking boom will peak around 2018-2020.

    The question is how many aquifers we’ll ruin between now and then.  

  2. How can anyone NOT know that fracking is an environmental nightmare?  Where have you been for the last 5 years???  

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