Environmentalists have panicked many citizens into believing fracking is dangerous by greatly exaggerating the small risks that are associated with fracking of oil and natural gas wells. In reality, these risks are very low, just like the risks associated with other industrial activities, especially when those industrial activities are conducted competently.
Many environmentalists falsely claim that banning fracking will reduce the production of oil & gas in the interests of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere. If only progress on climate change were that simple.
Some environmentalists, and the citizens they have successfully panicked, have lobbied politicians to enact fracking bans. The adverse impacts of such bans include:
- Immediately reducing energy-industry-related economic activity.
- Having no impact on reducing fossil fuel consumption including gasoline because refiners will simply source crude oil from another supplier.
- No reductions in GHG emissions despite claims that bans will do so.
- Increasing oil & gas production by producers with a poorer environmental, safety and governance (ESG) record.
- Increasing the prices of fossil fuels.
Who generates GHG emissions?
Environmentalists focus mostly on vilifying oil and natural gas producers when the real GHG emission villains are the consumers of fossil fuels.
Oil and natural gas producers generate about 20% of GHG emissions during the production, refining, and distribution processes. See chart at right. Consumers generate about 80% of GHG emissions from combustion. If we want to be serious about reducing GHG, we must reduce per capita energy consumption. The best short-term responses to climate change are energy conservation that is achieved by:
- Driving less and using transit more.
- Buying hybrid or electric cars the next time we need to purchase a vehicle.
- Improving the energy efficiency of governments, businesses, and individuals.
- Those, who can use renewable energy generation and consumption, doing so.
This article challenges the supposed harms that fracking causes and instead demonstrates that fracking is a low-risk industrial activity.
This sketch illustrates the steps in the fracking process.
Fracking produces no GHG emissions
Some environmentalists falsely claim that GHGs are released into the atmosphere by fracking operations. No GHG emissions are produced during fracking.
Fracking is an oil or natural gas well completion process. It injects water, sand, and small volumes of a few chemicals such as salt, citric acid, benzene or lead to increase permeability in the producing formation.
Atmospheric contamination from fracking is impossible for multiple reasons:
- Fracking does not cause any fluid to be brought to the surface. Fracking is about injection.
- Once the well is placed on production, it will initially produce mostly the water injected during the fracking operation without any GHG emissions.
- Once oil production begins, methane, called associated natural gas, will be produced with the oil. In many cases, the natural gas is transported for sale and not released into the atmosphere. See the production topic below for details.
- On natural gas wells, the natural gas is transported for sale and not released into the atmosphere because that would be throwing away money.
Some purists point out that the pumper trucks that inject the fracking fluid burn diesel that emits CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s true but that’s an infinitesimally tiny volume compared to the billions of truck miles that are driven each year.
Fracking does not contaminate groundwater
Some environmentalists falsely claim that underground methane migration, supposedly induced by fracking, causes groundwater contamination. Such contamination is next to impossible for multiple reasons:
- The vertical distance between the surface and the horizontal length of pipe in the sketch above is typically two to three thousand meters of impermeable rock. We know that the rock is impermeable because it has kept the oil and natural gas in its formation and not allowed it to migrate anywhere.
- While the purpose of fracking is to create fissures in the producing formation, the pressure exerted by the frack fluid is not sufficient to crack thousands of meters of impermeable rock to the groundwater formation near the surface.
- Surface casing is cemented into place to prevent the drilling and production operations from contaminating the groundwater. The vertical length of the pipe shown in the sketch above is the surface casing. Surface casing length typically varies from 300 to 900 meters.
You can read supporting analysis for these points in the EPA’s Study of Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources. It’s worth noting that in extraordinarily rare cases, some groundwater contamination has occurred due to the incompetent cementing of the casing.
Some scary videos have widely publicized where a homeowner uses a match to light the water coming from a kitchen faucet on fire. The claim is then made that fracking in the neighbourhood caused methane to be introduced into the water well. This claim is totally false. In the video, no one ever asks if the flame was also present in the weeks, months, or even years before fracking operations commenced in the neighbourhood. The truth is that methane has been present since the water well was constructed years before fracking started. The methane comes from narrow, non-commercial coal seams that exist in the surface sediment layers near where the water well was completed, typically 50 to 100 meters deep. When the kitchen faucet is opened, the water flowing out of the faucet contains small amounts of methane. There is no smell. The smell we associate with methane is a chemical introduced into the gas by the distribution utility as a safety measure to warn us of a potentially explosive leak.
Fracking does not cause perceptible earthquakes
Some environmentalists falsely claim that fracking causes dangerous earthquakes. Fracking can trigger small, barely perceptible earthquakes in the area near the well. Barely perceptible earthquakes are those that measure under 3.0 on the Richter scale. These small earthquakes also occur frequently, naturally, all over the earth and cause no damage.
After fracking operations became widespread in Oklahoma, USA, the frequency of light to moderate earthquakes increased. However, an investigation by regulators determined that these earthquakes were caused by wastewater injection and not by fracking.
Fracking wastewater does not contaminate groundwater
Some environmentalists falsely claim that fracking wastewater contaminates groundwater resources that are used by homeowners, industry, and agriculture. Fracking does create wastewater volumes. However, these volumes are trucked to a wastewater disposal facility as shown in the sketch above. At the wastewater disposal facility, the wastewater from fracking is injected deep underground into a formation that can hold the water. Fracking wastewater is not dumped into rivers and streams.
Reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production operations
Some environmentalists falsely attribute methane released into the atmosphere by routine oil and gas production operations to fracking. These significant volumes of methane are unrelated to fracking. The chart at right ranks countries by methane emission volume released by oil and gas production operations mostly for 2012.
Many countries have joined the Global Methane Alliance to reduce methane emissions into the atmosphere from many sources including oil and gas production.
Most of the methane emissions can be eliminated through good production practices that call for:
- Associated natural gas from oil wells to be pipelined for sale where economically feasible.
- Uneconomical associated natural gas from oil wells to be flared. Flaring burns the methane to produce CO2. This burning reduces the environmental impact from 100% to 5%.
- Natural gas from gas wells to be pipelined for sale. It is flared only under emergency conditions that threaten to destroy the production facility.
Unfortunately, quite a few oil and gas producing countries do not follow good production practices. The chart below lists countries by CO2 emission volumes produced. It is widely understood that methane emissions tend to be proportional to CO2 emissions.
The impediments that preclude converting methane venting to flaring include:
- Lack of return on capital and operating costs for a flaring facility.
- Lack of concern about environmental impacts.
- Believing that the environmental impact is negligible.
Environmentalists and others can advance the cause of climate change by lobbying these countries to reduce their methane venting.
Claiming that fracking causes environmental impacts is without factual foundation.
Canadian oil and natural gas are produced to the highest ESG standards in the world. Therefore, Canada has among the lowest rates of methane and CO2 emissions from oil and natural gas production compared to the producing countries shown in the chart above. Canada’s oil and gas production is ranked about 5th in the world while our CO2 emissions are ranked 22nd.