By Nanditha Sankar:
Hydraulic fracturing is simply the process of injecting a blend of sand, water and a whole lot of chemicals into artificially dug wells that go deep into the ground. The chemical mix hits certain geologic formations within the Earth’s bountiful undergrounds and cracks them open. Some additional chemicals called propants hold the fissured formations open while natural gas and petroleum are brought upwards through specially dug wells.
On the faÃ§ade, this seems like any other process we would’ve come across in chemistry books. Nearly 500,000 active wells in the US have been drilled for this purpose. It is estimated that more than 50% of the new wells drilled undergo fracturing until their bounties cease to show up. Why is it , then that France has banned this process? And the reports that were initially going against fracking vociferously spot no trace of the ill effects all of a sudden? What is it with fracking that sends waves of unease?
The answer lies in not one but a plethora of issues. It would take an epic to fully unpack the hazards in the cocktail that is fracking. Firstly, the sheer amount of water. It takes anywhere between 1-8 million gallons of water and 600 different chemicals per fracking. Multiply that with the 500,000 active wells and a number of around 18 (the no of times a well can be fracked) mentioned earlier and you get an amount nearly equal to the water consumption of at least a few cities. Not only does this involve diverting water from several water reserves, but it is also reported to have polluted several aquifers and water tables. In Texas, an aquifer ran dry due to fracking.
Fracking happens in areas with high underground methane content. The Academy Award winning documentary ‘Gasland‘ focused on the same issue – the impact of groundwater contamination by fracking. The waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone. In addition to these ill-effects, fracking is also known to release considerable amounts of radioactive elements, which, some agencies found unable to be removed.
While it may be true that fracking has tapped areas that were written-off earlier or even reduced the dependence on oil exports, its ill effects clearly seem to outnumber the benefits. A number of alternatives have been proposed to existing fracking techniques. Alliant Technosystems is a firm that is trying to bring about water less fracking which would save billions of gallons if implemented. Electric fracking is another proposed alternative.
France and Tunisia are two countries which have banned the practice along with some other US states. It is only when the underhand activities of the lobbyists is checked will we see the end of hydraulic fracturing. Until then, the future seems bleak and the number of wells being dug is bound to go for a rise.