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Everything you need to know about fracking
Blog...Everything you need to know about fracking

Everything you need to know about fracking

Ecology News
oil drilling with sunset behind
In this article, we delve into the complexities of fracking, examining its methods, its significant role in energy production, and the environmental concerns it raises.
Ecology News
oil drilling with sunset behind

Fracking, a method of oil and gas extraction frequently surrounded by controversy, has significantly transformed the energy industry. It has enabled access to vast reserves of oil and gas that were once trapped deep beneath the earth's surface. While its ability to boost energy production is undeniable, fracking also finds itself at the center of heated environmental debates. In this article, we’ll explore what fracking is, how it works, and what its impact on the environment is. 

👉 In this article, we delve into the complexities of fracking, examining its methods, its significant role in energy production, and the environmental concerns it raises.

What is fracking?

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a method used to extract natural gas and oil from under the surface of the earth. It involves the injection of high-pressure fluid into subterranean rocks and boreholes to create cracks or fractures through which oil and gas can flow more easily. This technique has transformed the energy sector by enabling access to vast reserves of hydrocarbons that were previously too challenging or too costly to extract. 

However, fracking has also been a topic of heated debate due to serious concerns about its environmental impacts. Concerns such as potential groundwater contamination, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and seismic activity, continue to fuel discussions about the sustainability and regulation of fracking. Read on to find out more…


How does fracking work?

The fracking process begins with drilling a well, typically thousands of feet deep, into the earth until it reaches the targeted area of rock that contains oil or gas. The drill is then turned horizontally to penetrate the rock layer more effectively.

Once the drilling is complete, a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is injected into the well. This mixture is central to the fracking process; the water creates pressure to crack the rocks, the sand particles keep the fractures open, and the chemicals facilitate the flow of the oil or gas.

These fractures allow the trapped oil or gas to flow back to the surface. After the fracking process is completed, the gas or oil is collected, and the mixture of water and chemicals (often referred to as 'fracking fluid') is typically stored or disposed of - though this part of the process has raised environmental concerns (more on this later).

Technological advancements in fracking, such as horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing, have made it possible to extract resources more efficiently and from larger areas than traditional vertical wells. These innovations have not only increased the feasibility of accessing previously difficult-to-reach reserves but also heightened the scrutiny and regulatory focus on the industry, given its environmental implications.

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The history of fracking

The roots of fracking trace back to the 1860s, when Edward A. L. Roberts, serving in the United States Civil War, observed the impact of artillery rounds on narrow streams. Inspired by this observation, Roberts, after his service, launched the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company. His company used an invention known as the "Exploding Torpedo," designed to increase the extraction of oil and gas.

The method involved lowering torpedoes packed with nitroglycerin into an oil well and then sealing the borehole to intensify the subsequent explosion. This innovative method increased oil and gas production, in some instances boosting extraction by up to ten times.

However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the modern technique of hydraulic fracturing emerged. In 1949, Halliburton became the first company to commercialize hydraulic fracturing, laying the groundwork for a technology that would transform the energy sector. 

Advancements in technology

After Halliburton was granted a patent for the hydraulic fracturing process there was a surge in fracking operations. However, the true advancement in fracking came with the introduction of horizontal drilling in the 1980s. This technique allowed for a greater exposure of the rock formation, increasing the efficiency and output of the fracking process. It was particularly transformative for extracting gas from shale formations, a resource that hadn't been economically viable before. 

The shale boom

The turn of the century marked the beginning of what is often referred to as the 'shale boom'. Advancements in drilling and fracturing technologies made it feasible to extract oil and gas from shale formations at a commercially viable rate. This era witnessed a significant shift in the energy industry, with countries like the United States drastically increasing their domestic production of oil and natural gas and reducing their dependence on foreign oil.

Global expansion and controversy

As the 21st century progressed, fracking spread globally, with many countries extracting their shale reserves. However, this expansion was met with increasing environmental concerns. Issues such as potential groundwater contamination, seismic activities (earthquakes), and methane emissions brought fracking under intense scrutiny. Debates around these concerns have influenced regulatory policies and public perception of the industry, and fracking is considered to be a controversial practice in many regions to this day. 

Environmental concerns about fracking

Groundwater contamination

One of the main environmental concerns associated with fracking is the potential contamination of groundwater. Chemicals used in the fracking process can seep into underground water reserves, posing risks to drinking water quality. The integrity of the fracking wells is a critical factor in preventing contamination. Cases of poor well construction have been reported, leading to the leakage of fracking fluids into groundwater.

Air quality and greenhouse gas emissions

Fracking contributes to air pollution in several ways. The process can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter, and other pollutants that impact air quality and human health. Additionally, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, can escape into the atmosphere during drilling and extraction. 

Water usage and management

Fracking requires significant amounts of water, which can pose challenges in water-scarce regions. The management of this water, particularly the disposal of used fracking fluid, is another environmental concern. While some of the water is recycled, a substantial amount becomes wastewater, which needs to be treated or disposed of safely to prevent contamination.

Induced seismicity

Another notable concern is the link between fracking and induced seismic activity. The injection of wastewater from fracking into deep underground wells has been linked to increased seismic events, even in areas not previously known for significant earthquake activity.

Ecological impact

Fracking operations can also have direct impacts on local ecosystems. Land clearing for drilling sites, increased noise pollution, and habitat fragmentation can adversely affect wildlife and biodiversity in the areas surrounding fracking operations.

Addressing environmental concerns

In response to these environmental concerns, the industry and regulatory bodies have been working to develop safer fracking practices. This includes stricter regulations on well construction, improved wastewater management techniques, and the development of more accurate methods to monitor air and water quality around fracking sites.

oil drill

What are the advantages of fracking

Despite the adverse environmental impacts, fracking brings several key advantages, including: 

Economic benefits

Fracking has proven to be a substantial economic driver, especially in regions with large shale deposits. It creates jobs, not only in the drilling and extraction process but also in supporting industries. This influx of jobs and investment can invigorate local economies, leading to growth in various sectors.

Lower energy prices

Increased supply of natural gas and oil due to fracking has led to lower energy prices for consumers. This decrease in energy costs can have wide-ranging benefits for households and businesses, reducing utility bills and decreasing the cost of goods and services.

Energy independence

For many countries, fracking represents a path towards energy independence. By reducing the reliance on foreign oil imports, countries can achieve greater control over their energy sources, enhancing national security and reducing geopolitical vulnerabilities.

Reduced carbon emissions

When compared to coal, natural gas from fracking emits half as much carbon dioxide when burned. This means that natural gas is a relatively cleaner transition fuel in the shift toward renewable energy sources. However it should still be noted that all fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and even though natural gas can be said to be less harmful than coal it is certainly not a clean energy source. 

Legal and regulatory landscape of fracking

United States 

Fracking is big business in the United States, with 64% of all US oil and 79% of natural gas coming from fracking. Fracking is regulated through a combination of federal and state laws. Federal regulations like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act provide a framework, but many specifics are left to state governments. States therefore have significant leeway when it comes to regulating aspects like drilling permits and environmental assessments.

European Union

Within the European Union, the approach to fracking has been generally cautious. Some member countries, such as France and Germany, have imposed bans or stringent restrictions due to environmental and public health concerns. 

The European Union has adopted a recommendation of minimum principles when employing high-volume hydraulic fracturing. These principles include environmental impact assessments, analysis of air, water, and soil quality, the capturing of gases to control air emissions, transparency concerning chemicals used, and the utilization of best practice drilling methods. 

United Kingdom

The UK's relationship with fracking has been complex and evolving. Initially, the UK government considered fracking a potential solution to decreasing domestic energy production and increasing reliance on overseas energy sources. However, concerns over induced seismic activity led to a suspension of fracking activities in England in 2019

This decision reflected not just the scientific evidence linking fracking to earthquakes but also considerable public opposition on environmental grounds. The UK Conservative Government briefly lifted the fracking ban in September 2022, before implementing the ban once more just a short month later. 

Evolving regulatory frameworks

Across the world, regulatory frameworks are evolving to better address the environmental impacts of fracking. This includes increased transparency in disclosing the chemicals used, stricter water management rules, and more comprehensive monitoring of induced seismic activity and air pollution.

It’s also worth noting that public opinion and activism play critical roles in shaping fracking regulations. In many regions, community concerns have led to stricter regulations, while in others, support is driven by the economic advantages and potential for job creation.

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Technological advancements

In recent decades the fracking industry has seen significant technological advancements aimed at improving efficiency and reducing environmental impacts. These innovations not only enhance the extraction process but are also helping to address some of the key concerns associated with fracking:

Advanced hydraulic fracturing techniques

Modern fracking uses more precise hydraulic fracturing techniques, allowing for better control over the fracturing process. Innovations in this area include variable-rate fracturing, where the pressure and composition of the fracking fluid can be adjusted for optimal fracture creation, minimizing the environmental impact.

Improved drilling technologies

The adoption of horizontal drilling has been a game-changer in fracking, allowing for a single well to access a much larger area of the shale formation. This technique reduces the number of drilling sites required, thereby minimizing the surface footprint and environmental disruption.

Eco-friendly fracking fluids

Research and development have led to the creation of more eco-friendly fracking fluids. These new formulations aim to reduce or eliminate harmful chemicals and use substances that are less toxic and more biodegradable, reducing the risk of environmental contamination.

Water recycling and management

Technologies for recycling and reusing water in the fracking process have improved, reducing the overall water consumption and the need for water disposal. Innovations in water treatment technologies also allow for more efficient and safer handling of wastewater.

Real-time data and monitoring

Advancements in sensor technology and data analysis have enabled real-time monitoring of fracking operations. This includes tracking the integrity of wells, measuring seismic activity, and monitoring air and water quality, allowing for immediate response to potential issues.

Emission reduction technologies

Efforts to reduce emissions associated with fracking include technologies to capture methane leaks and more efficient flaring systems. These advancements are helping to minimize the carbon footprint of fracking operations.

Automation and AI in fracking

The integration of automation and AI in fracking operations has led to more efficient and safer practices. For example, AI algorithms can analyze geological data to identify the best drilling locations and optimize extraction processes, reducing the chances of error and enhancing overall productivity.

fracking drill

The future of fracking

One of the primary challenges facing fracking is balancing the growing global demand for energy with increasing environmental concerns. As countries work to meet their energy needs while also addressing climate change, the role of fracking will be increasingly scrutinized. Regardless of how environmentally sensitive the fracking process becomes, the fact of the matter is that fracking removes fossil fuels from the earth, and fossil fuels are not a clean source of energy. They produce harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. 

However, as the world transitions towards renewable energy sources, natural gas, including gas sourced from fracking, is frequently viewed as a bridge in this transition. This perspective hinges on its ability to provide a dependable and adaptable energy source. Crucially, the effectiveness of natural gas in facilitating a smoother transition to renewables will depend on how well it can balance immediate energy demands with the need to reduce carbon emissions. In this context, the future role of fracking, and how it aligns with global sustainability goals, will likely remain highly controversial and changeable.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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