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Last updated: 26 April 2024

Fracking Facts: The Environmental Impact

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is used to extract oil and gas from underground rock formations. While it has significantly boosted energy production, it has also raised serious environmental and health concerns.

This article confronts the pressing issue head-on by dissecting 'Fracking's Footprint. 

Fracking contributes to global climate change through methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Fracking wells can leak significantly more methane than conventional natural gas wells, exacerbating the climate crisis. 

In 2014, emissions from new fracked wells were equivalent to the annual emissions from 22 coal-fired power plants. 

The health effects of fracking-related pollution have an estimated economic impact of £10-22 billion annually. In addition, a report has also indicated that operations near communities have led to increased adverse pregnancy outcomes, cancer incidence, and respiratory issues.

This has led to severe global environmental footprint concerns, with implications for water and air quality, public health, and the climate. While it has been a boon for energy production, the long-term environmental and human health costs are becoming increasingly apparent. 

We will explore the multifaceted impacts of this controversial extraction method, examining the latest statistics and trends that shed light on the environmental footprint left by fracking operations.

What do we mean by fracking exactly?

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a well-stimulated technique that has significantly changed the landscape of energy production. It involves injecting about 97% of a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals into shale or other tight rock formations, creating fractures that allow fossil fuels to flow to the surface. 

This technique has revolutionised the energy industry, especially in the United States, making it a global leader in natural gas and crude oil production.

The process also requires substantial equipment and infrastructure, contributing to land degradation and habitat loss. 

Historical background

The concept of fracking is familiar; it dates back to the 1860s when an early form of the technique was used to increase oil production. However, the modern method of hydraulic fracturing, combined with horizontal drilling, began to take shape in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Innovations such as using slickwater (a mix of water, sand, and chemicals) and the ability to drill horizontally significantly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of fracking, leading to the current boom in shale gas and oil production. 

Environmental and health impacts of fracking

Despite its economic benefits, fracking has raised significant environmental and health concerns. The process consumes vast amounts of water and generates large volumes of wastewater, which can contain harmful chemicals. 

Aspect of frackingImpact on environment
Water usage50,000 to 5 million gallons per well
Chemical usage0.5% of fluid volume, including friction reducers, biocides, etc.
Air emissionsMethane and other toxic pollutants
Land ImpactHabitat loss, species decline, migratory disruptions
Health risksIncreased risk of cancer, respiratory issues, etc.

There are worries about the potential for this wastewater to contaminate drinking water supplies and harm aquatic ecosystems.

It has been associated with hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic wastewater, millions of tons of air pollution, and substantial contributions to global warming pollution.

Toxic wastewater generated280 billion gallons
Air pollution produced per year450,000 tons
Fresh water used since 2005250 billion gallons
Land degraded since 2005360,000 acres
Global warming pollution since 2005100 million metric tons
The environmental of fracking is often overlook over the economic gain.

What is so bad about fracking for the environment?

Fracking's environmental impact is multifaceted, affecting water, air, and land and contributing to climate change. Key concerns include:

  • Water contamination: Chemicals used in fracking can migrate into underground drinking water sources through cracks in the rock or due to spills and improper waste disposal. A single fracking operation can consume up to 22 million litres of water to fill 9 Olympic swimming pools.
  • Air pollution: The process releases various pollutants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), methane, and particulate matter, contributing to smog and posing health risks to nearby communities.
  • Induced seismicity: Fracking can cause minor earthquakes, which, although generally of low magnitude, raise concerns about their potential to damage infrastructure.
  • Habitat disruption: The development of fracking sites can lead to loss of wildlife habitat, species decline, and disruptions to migratory patterns.
  • Waste disposal: Managing the vast amounts of wastewater produced by fracking is a challenge, with risks of spills and leaks

What is the impact of fracking?

The impact of fracking can be considered from various angles, including its total impact per year, impact per day, and impact per usage. However, quantifying these impacts precisely is challenging due to environmental systems' complex and interconnected nature and the variability in fracking operations worldwide. 

Nonetheless, several studies have highlighted significant concerns:

Impact typeDescriptionPotential consequences
Water QualityContamination from chemicals and flow backHealth risks, ecosystem damage
Air QualityEmission of pollutants like BTEX and NOxRespiratory issues, smog formation
Habitat LossDisruption of ecosystems due to land useDecline in biodiversity, migratory issues
Induced SeismicitySmall earthquakes caused by frackingGeological instability, property damage

Total impact per year

The cumulative annual impact of fracking includes widespread environmental degradation, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and potential health risks for nearby communities. An estimate suggests that the oil and gas industry could be responsible for up to 9% of all human-caused methane emissions. 

In addition, studies have documented the social costs of water pollution and the negative impact on infant health, such as preterm births and low birth weights.

Impact per day

Daily, fracking can release pollutants into the air and water, affecting local ecosystems and human health. Each day, large volumes of water are used, and chemicals are injected into the ground, with the potential for immediate and long-term environmental damage. The rapid expansion of fracking has outpaced the ability of regulations to protect against these daily emissions.

Impact per usage

Each fracking operation can use millions of gallons of water and thousands of gallons of chemicals. The environmental footprint of a single fracking event includes potential water contamination, air pollution, and strain on local resources. However, each fracking event can release up to 5% of the methane produced, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. 

For instance, every new well drilled near a public drinking water source has been associated with poorer birth outcomes. Using fracking fluids and managing the flow of water can also lead to the contamination of water resources with each usage.

Top largest economies contributing to fracking

Fracking has been instrumental in transforming the energy landscape of countries like the United States, which has become the world's largest oil and natural gas producer due to this technology. 

  • Lower Energy Costs: Households have saved, on average, £200 per year on gas bills due to lower natural gas prices.
  • Regional Economic Gains: Different regions have experienced varying levels of economic benefits, with some areas saving up to £432 per person annually

The economic benefits are substantial, with fracking contributing to job creation, energy independence, and consumer savings. For instance, gas bills in the US dropped by £9.5 billion per year from 2007 to 2013, translating to savings of around £146 per year for gas-consuming households.

While the US has seen a fracking boom, other countries have slowly adopted this technology. For example, China, despite having the world's largest reserves of shale gas, is expected to develop them slowly due to various challenges, including infrastructure and property rights issues.

The table below concisely overviews the top economies contributing to fracking. 

CountryEconomic benefitsEnvironmental concerns
United StatesLeading oil and natural gas producer, job creationHabitat loss, water and air pollution, greenhouse gases
ChinaExpanding shale gas explorationRisk of water scarcity, pollution
CanadaA significant player in the hydraulic fracturing marketPotential for water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions
ArgentinaGrowing unconventional oil and gas sectorConcerns over water use, seismic activity
United KingdomPotential economic growth from shale gas extractionPublic opposition due to environmental risks

While some countries have embraced the technique for its economic benefits, others have banned it (France, Ireland and Germany) or heavily regulated it due to environmental and health concerns. 

What if we stopped fracking today?

Halting hydraulic fracturing would trigger widespread changes. Here's what to expect:

Environmental Relief: The environment would likely begin to see benefits. Reduced water contamination and habitat disruption would be immediate positives. Air quality could improve as methane emissions—potent greenhouse gases—decrease.

Economic Shockwaves: Economically, the picture is complex. Fracking has driven down natural gas prices, providing consumers and businesses with cheaper energy. A sudden stop could reverse this, leading to higher energy costs and potential job losses in the sector.

Energy Landscape Shift: The energy industry would need to pivot. Renewable energy sources might gain an accelerated interest, stimulating innovation and investment in cleaner alternatives.

Social Dynamics: Communities near fracking sites could experience a shift. Health risks associated with fracking-related pollution would likely decrease, but areas economically dependent on fracking might face challenges.

How much money does this cost us?

Assessing the financial impact of fracking involves looking at both sides.

On the flip side, it has significantly benefited the economy. It has led to a decrease in natural gas prices by 47% compared to pre-fracking era estimates, saving gas-consuming households approximately £150 annually. The industry supports around 1.7 million jobs, with projections suggesting this could rise to 3 million

It has added about £54 billion per year to federal and state government revenues since 2012 and expects to reach about £270 million in tax revenues. 

However, a ban on hydraulic fracturing would have profound economic and national security repercussions. According to a report by the Department of Energy, such a ban would lead to higher electricity and natural gas costs, with retail electricity costs increasing by more than £378.95 billion and natural gas costs by more than £316.00 billion between 2021 and 2025. 

Additionally, gasoline and diesel prices could more than double, significantly impacting consumers and various sectors of the economy.

Environmental impact compared to everyday things

To understand how fracking's CO2 levels compare to everyday items and activities, it's essential to look at the broader picture of its environmental footprint. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, can leak during fracking and throughout the natural gas supply chain, potentially offsetting the CO2 benefits when burned at power plants.

To put fracking's impact into perspective, let's consider the carbon footprint of everyday items and activities:

  • A cup of coffee has a carbon footprint of about 1.8 kg CO2.
  • A pint of beer is responsible for approximately 7.7 kg of CO2.
  • Driving a mid-range car from London to Paris (one way) emits around 32 kg of CO2.
  • A one-way economy flight from London to Paris emits about 2.5 kg of CO2
  • Household electricity use (UK average per year) emits about 2.7 tonnes

Comparing these figures to the emissions from fracking operations, which contributed 225 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents from drilling and leaks, illustrates the scale at which industrial processes like fracking impact the environment.

Is fracking sustainable?

Given the significant environmental and health risks of fracking, its sustainability could be better. While it has provided economic benefits and contributed to energy production, the long-term environmental degradation, health risks, and socio-psychological impacts challenge the notion of fracking as a sustainable practice. 

The process risks causing pollution, harming public health, and exacerbating climate change, which are critical considerations in the global effort to transition towards more sustainable energy sources.

Is fracking toxic?

It poses significant environmental and health risks, primarily due to the toxic chemicals used in the process and the potential for air and water pollution. It releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other harmful compounds such as nitrogen oxides, benzene, and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. 

These emissions can contribute to air pollution, forming smog and ozone that can cause respiratory issues and other health problems for nearby people. 

Beyond direct health risks, fracking can impact communities through increased traffic, noise, and physical environmental changes. These changes can lead to stress and anxiety, which are indirect health risks. Additionally, workers at fracking sites face specific health risks, including exposure to silica sand and chemical spills.

What are alternatives?

As the effects of climate change become more apparent, there is a growing interest in finding alternatives to fracking that are more sustainable and have less environmental impact.

Here are some alternatives that are considered to be better for the environment:

  • Renewable energy sources: Wind and solar power are clean, renewable, and inexhaustible sources that produce no emissions.
  • Energy efficiency: Improving energy efficiency in buildings, transportation, and industry can reduce the need for fossil fuels.
  • Bioenergy: Using organic materials for energy can be a sustainable alternative if managed responsibly.
  • Geothermal energy: Tapping into the Earth's heat can provide a steady and clean energy source.
  • Hydroelectric power: Although it can have significant ecological impacts, hydroelectricity is a renewable source that can provide large amounts of power.
  • Recycled water or Brine: Recycled or brine can be used in fracking operations instead of fresh water. This method conserves fresh water and reduces water pollution caused by traditional fracking systems.
  • Plasma pulse technology: This innovative method requires no water or chemicals. It uses an electrical discharge to create a high-pressure plasma pulse, allowing oil to flow more easily into the well. This cleaner approach to fracking minimises environmental impact.
  • Water-less fracking systems: An alternative approach to traditional fracking is using water-less fracking systems. These systems use gelled fluids or propane instead of water, significantly reducing water usage. This method achieves similar results to water-based fracking but with a fraction of the fluid.
Alternative energy sourceEnvironmental impactEconomic viabilityHealth impact
Wind PowerLowIncreasingly HighLow
Solar PowerLowIncreasingly HighLow
Geothermal EnergyLowMediumLow
Hydroelectric PowerVariableHighLow

Is it better than its alternatives?

While fracking has enabled significant increases in oil and gas production, it has drawbacks. The process consumes vast amounts of water, contributes to air and water pollution, and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. These environmental and health risks have led to calls for alternatives.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power offer a more sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. They do not produce emissions, use water, or pose significant health risks. Innovations like water-less fracking systems and plasma pulse technology provide cleaner methods for extracting oil and gas, although they may not eliminate the environmental impact.

Statistics, facts, and figures about fracking

Here, we present a comprehensive overview of fracking's global landscape, focusing on production, usage, and economic implications, not just delving into its environmental impacts. 

Fracking has become a prevalent technique in the oil and gas industry, with some form using 90% of all new onshore oil and gas development. 

It accounts for a substantial portion of natural gas production, particularly in the United States, representing 60% of the output. 

The global hydraulic fracturing market is projected to reach a value of £53.7 billion by 2024.

The projected market value for the global hydraulic fracturing market by 2028 is £56.6 billion, indicating significant growth within the industry.

The US is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's largest crude oil exporter by 2024, with exports potentially reaching 9 million barrels per day.

More than 2.5 million wells worldwide have been completed using the fracking process.

Approximately 80% of new wells in Canada utilise hydraulic fracturing.

Russia, China, Argentina, and Algeria have significant shale oil and gas reserves, with Russia having 75 billion barrels of shale oil reserves and China having 1,115 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves.

The fracking boom has led to a decrease in electricity costs by roughly 31% and motor fuels by 43%.

Between 2005 and 2012, fracking directly created 725,000 new jobs in the US, helping to mitigate the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

A report by Ernst & Young for the UK Onshore Operators Group estimated that a £33 billion investment in fracking could generate 64,500 direct and indirect jobs at the peak.

The UK has been linked to earth tremors, groundwater contamination, air pollution, surface water pollution, and health problems.

In the UK, a 2022 survey found that only 17% of the public supported fracking.

The Institute of Directors estimated that the UK shale industry could support 74,000 jobs, but this has yet to be corroborated.

Facts you need to know about fracking
  1. Large amounts of water used in fracking can jeopardise the availability and quality of drinking water.
  2. The disposal of fracking waste, which can be radioactive, is a concern due to the potential for groundwater contamination.
  3. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is released during fracking operations, contributing to global warming.
  4. Shale gas remains the largest segment of the hydraulic fracturing market by application, driven by the presence of large shale-proved reserves and increasing shale exploration and production activities globally.
  5. Many European nations have banned or restricted fracking activity due to environmental and health concerns.

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