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May 13

Strike up a conversation with almost any proponent of green living, and you’re likely to hear about fracking. Environmentalists and those who support the use of fracking go head to head over the extent to which the process damages the environment.

What is Fracking?

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process used to develop U.S. gas and oil resources. To cause pressure at the bottom of a well, technicians utilize high-pressure pumps. The pumps create small fractures in the hydrocarbon formation to help extract gas and oil deposits traditional drilling and pumping can’t reach.

Fracking has been around for 60 years. With refined technology, the practice has become increasingly common. For example, of the new wells in Colorado, around 95 percent have undergone fracking.

The fluid used in fracking is made up of more than 99 percent sand and water, along with additives to regulate the chemical properties when these two are mixed. The actual process varies per well. Industry balances cost against expected results before deciding to use fracking.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the development of U.S. gas and oil resources. The agency works with states, federal partners, industry and communities to pinpoint where development should occur. It both approves and regulates drilling operations and surface disturbances linked to them on public land or involving public minerals. BLM is also responsible for generating rules that would require industry to make a public disclosure of any chemicals used in fracking on Indian or public land.

Credit: WhatisFracking.com

Credit: WhatisFracking.com

The Controversy

The big question is whether fracking is actually bad for the environment. The concern is the damage caused by waste water from the process. While this is an emotional topic for many, some green living advocates are shrugging their shoulders.

One reason is that both companies who use the practice and environmentalists against it churn out studies at lightning speed. Most of them contradict each other.

Another is that much of the data captured by federal agencies and industry isn’t shared due to proprietary issues, privacy or the threat of litigation. Some experts believe that the bottom line is that there’s no irrefutable evidence that the practice has a sustained impact on the environment when it comes to water quality in areas studied, among them certain regions in Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, reports of headaches, breathing problems, nausea and other conditions from individuals who live close to drilling sites for natural gas, wastewater pits or compressor stations continue to mount.

Fracking in the News

A group of toxicologists affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania is heading a nationwide attempt to figure out exactly what the health effects of fracking are. The researchers are working with colleagues from Columbia, Johns Hopkins, the University of North Carolina and other schools. They have also asked 17 centers linked to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to participate.

The study comes about five years after efforts began to extract gas using combined fracking and horizontal drilling in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. A top priority is calculating the toxicity of the flowback water – containing a mix of natural and synthetic chemicals – that emerges from wells that have undergone fracking.

The initial phase followed Marcellus Shale region residents in Pennsylvania regarding health problems and whether the individuals linked them to nearby gas drilling. Future efforts depend on additional federal funding.

Also in line for funding is a proposed project that would utilize a Harvard mapping tool. The objective is correlating natural gas installations with reported illness. It involves studying health outcomes of specific populations by using health insurance company data.

A recent study by the nonprofit advocacy group Ceres supports looking at the water used for fracking on the basis of small geographic units such as counties. The quantity of water used during the process is small overall. However, the findings suggest that fracking could create significant issues for water supplies in the western areas such as Colorado and Texas, where it’s common.

Recycling fracking water is expensive. Technicians must remove many chemicals, sand and sometimes radioactive substances before the water can re-enter the local water supply.