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Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique used by the oil and gas industry to extract natural gas from rock thousands of feet underground. The fracking process includes pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals (including carcinogens) underground.
Evidence suggests that this risky process affects the water we drink, air we breathe, food we eat and climate we rely on for comfort. And like all oil and gas efforts, it endangers the wild places we love dearly. Here's the ugly evidence:
1. Fracking disrupts and threatens wild lands
Fracking negatively impacts wild lands treasured by all Americans. Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Rocky Mountain West. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico contain some of the most spectacular American landscapes but are also coveted for their natural gas resources. This spring, the BLM did announce a new policy for chemical disclosure on leased lands. The Wilderness Society strongly supports setting more stringent standards because these proposed rules don’t require public disclosure about fracking chemicals until after the drilling has been completed.
2. Fracking contaminates drinking water
Last fall, the EPA released a report showing that fracking had contaminated groundwater in Wyoming, sparking a deluge of speculation about water pollution as a consequence of natural gas extraction. The evidence was used to back a claim that Pennsylvania water wells were polluted with methane. The New York Times' own investigation in the state showed levels of radiation well beyond federal drinking-water standards. In places like Texas, it's harder to get evidence, which some suspect is because of conflicts of interest.
There are 29 states with fracking in some stage of development or activity. Here is a map showing the location of U.S. shale gas plays, or shale formations in which natural gas is trapped (data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) courtesy of data.fractracker.org):
3. Fracking pollutes the air with scary pollutants
Since Garfield County, Colorado has experienced fracking development, residents who live within a half mile of the natural gas wells have been exposed to air pollutants, like the carcinogen benzene and toxic hydrocarbons known to cause respiratory and neurological problems, according to a three-year study from the Colorado School of Public Health. Colorado allows companies to drill for natural gas within 150 feet of homes, so nearby residents could be facing acute and chronic health problems like leukemia in the long-term.
4. Global warming gone overboard
In some ways, the most significant air pollutant is methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide. While some claim that the cost is worth the benefits if it means we can transition away from fossil fuels, it has been shown that the “footprint” of shale gas is actually 20 percent higher than coal.
5. Even if you don't drink the water, animals will
Of course, water pollution not only affects human populations, it affects other wildlife as well. This should concern anyone who eats meat, whether they hunt it or purchase it indirectly from a farm, which may incidentally be near a fracking well. In addition to degradation of habitat and interference with migration and reproduction, farmers have reported illness and death among domestic animals exposed to fracking wastewater.
6. Fracking also causes earthquakes?
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping massive amounts of water into the earth's crust to break apart rock, so it should be no surprise that small earthquakes that have occurred in Ohio and Arkansas have been linked to nearby wastewater wells. The wastewater wells take in the water used to fracture the rock, and because the water is thousands of feet underground, it is under very high pressure. Since thousands of these new wells are being developed in populated areas, even small earthquakes are alarming for most of these areas haven't been seismically active in the past.
7. Despite recorded health risks, the facts are hard to find.
Fracking takes advantage of loopholes in federal laws designed to protect drinking water, so the chemicals used in drilling are not required by federal law to be publicly disclosed. Disclosure requirements for fracking chemicals differ widely from state to state, but the majority of states with fracking have no disclosure rules at all (only 14 out of the 29 have any). The rules that do exist are inadequate, failing to require disclosure of many important aspects, such as:
- pre-fracking disclosure of all the chemicals that may be used (this makes it impossible to trace and prove the source of water contamination if it arises)
- disclosure of the concentration of all chemicals
- full disclosure to medical professionals in the event of an accident because of “trade secret” exemptions
Even for those states with laws, enforcement isn't strict.