If you’ve been reading or listening to the news as of late chances are that the topic of “fracking” (short for hydraulic fracturing) has come up in one form or another. On one hand you have environmentalists saying that it’s bad for the world in general and on other the other hand you have those who claim that’s it’s just what the world needs to keep us supplied with the energy we need to carry on life as we know it.

The way “fracking” has been portrayed one would also have been led to believe that it’s a relatively new process when in fact it’s been around since the mid 1940’s. It’s only been since 2005 when it started being used on a large scale basis and gained a measure of notoriety.

What the “frack” is it?

To put it simply, “fracking” is a method used to extract natural gas from deep underneath the ground using water to smash open rocks using hydraulics and then extracting the gas for use by the general public. According to the EPA, approximately 35,000 wells in the United States are “fracked” each year.

How the “frack” does it work?

Since I’m a relatively simple person I’ll try to put in terms that make sense to me. First, you dig a hole, then you pump water, sand and other “secret ingredients” down the hole at extremely high pressure. This will cause the rocks and clay formations buried deep beneath the ground to crack and the natural gas is squeezed out of them.

Maybe that sounds a bit too simple. The amount of water and sand mixture used can be up to 4 million gallons and the hole can be as deep as 10,000 feet deep. The injection rate of the fluid can be up to 4,200 gallons of fluid per minute which exerts approximately 15,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.

Secret ingredients?

No, it’s not the secret recipe for Coca-Cola or even for the Colonel's own Kentucky Fried Chicken. Besides the things most familiar to us such as water and sand a potpourri of other chemicals might be used in order to speed the fracking up. Here’s a short list of some of the ones commonly used to frack things up.

I’m no scientist or chemist but as a layman some of that stuff sounds pretty scary.

What’s your fracking problem?

The problem is that all of that fluid has to wind up somewhere. Like I said earlier, environmentalists and the like claim that many of those chemicals could seep into our water supply, contaminate it and make it unfit for consumption.

Was that an earthquake I just felt?

Maybe, maybe not. According to the USGS fracking does indeed cause minor quakes but they are so small that they don’t pose a safety concern. Other folks have a different take on the matter.

Across the pond in the United Kingdom two relatively small earthquakes were felt in the region of Lancashire in 2011. They registered 2.3 and 1.4 on the Richter scale and fracking was named as the primary suspect.

Last year, closer to home, in my adopted home state of Ohio, the city of Youngstown experienced a 2.7 magnitude quake on Christmas Eve and a 4.0 quake on New Year’s Eve. The area is a hotbed within the state for fracking.

Fracking is good for you!

Proponents of fracking claim that this is exactly the case. They argue that so much natural gas was produced that it was able to drive down prices to a ten year low during last year’s winter. They also argue that since natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere resulting in lower amounts of greenhouse gasses. To further their cause, they state that natural gas also releases much less sulfur dioxide, a major component of acid rain, into the atmosphere.

Frack that shit!

The other side claims that while this might be true the risk does not outweigh the rewards. They claim that the fluids used will have long term effects and that more research is required in order to allow the practice to continue. Thus far, many communities here in the States have enacted local bans or moratoriums on the practice. Worldwide, the countries of Bulgaria and France have banned the practice outright while the UK and Romania have temporarily suspended the practice until further research can be conducted.

Will the practice continue?

How the frack should I know? In the States it’s become something of a political football being kicked back and forth between supporters of the practice and those who are against it.

If I had to bet, I say that the side with the most money will eventually win the debate.

Submitted in conjunction with ScienceQuest 2013



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