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How Hydraulic Fracking Works


No Fracking Way
A protester demonstrates against fracking outside of the California EPA headquarters on July 25, 2012. Dozens of environmental activists staged a 'Stop Fracking With California' demonstration outside the headquarters.
A protester demonstrates against fracking outside of the California EPA headquarters on July 25, 2012. Dozens of environmental activists staged a 'Stop Fracking With California' demonstration outside the headquarters.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

So far, we've only discussed the logistics and the benefits of hydraulic fracturing. But fracking isn't exactly a slam-dunk when it comes to safety. In fact, for pretty much every argument we put forth in the last section for fracking, there's a pretty virulent counter.

For one, fracking is still a hard-core mining operation. Meaning that drilling -- and the trucks, pumps, transports and storage containers -- are all still going to be present at the site, along with the necessary related infrastructure. Although gas companies are eager to make it sound like finding natural gas on farmland would be a godsend to cash-strapped farmers, there are also the issues of pipelines causing damage to crops and equipment tearing up roads [source: Schaefer].

One of the biggest complaints about fracking is not the act itself, but the fluid that's pumped into the well to cause fractures. Chemical additives make up 0.5-2.0 percent of the sand and water mixture [source: EarthWorks]. The additives include acids to help dissolve minerals, chemicals found in detergents, disinfectants and household cleaners [source: McGraw]. Do keep in mind that millions of gallons of the stuff is used; 4 million gallons (15 million liters) of fracking fluid would then equal 300 tons of chemical additives [source: EarthWorks]. A huge concern is that these fluids are staying in the ground and leaching into soil and groundwater. (Not to mention the potential of surface spills.)

After the fracturing occurs, there are more concerns. The tiny fissures can travel far, which implies they could technically end up cracking into a water supply. (While this hasn't yet been documented, potential cases are being studied [source: McGraw]). That means that the oil or natural gas could get into the drinking water.

There's also the problem of the enormous amounts of wastewater generated. Billions of gallons of wastewater needs to be disposed of yearly. Often, that means treating it at local wastewater plants -- with subsequent release into the surface water [source: NRDC]. Some also evaporate off the more volatile chemicals in the compound, which means that for all the talk of "clean burning natural gas," there are air pollution concerns when it comes to mining the gas (not to mention the tankers, trucks and equipment that are on the road, which doesn't help pollution) [source: EarthWorks].

And one of the problems we'll explore in the next chapter is that nobody is quite sure about how harmful all this is.


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