What is fracking? While fracking may not be a household word yet, but we've been talking about this form of natural gas drilling—and its potential effects on your family's health—for some time. Now it seems more voices are about to join the conversation.
Recently, a ranking congressman on the House Committee on Natural Resources questioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's competence in protecting Americans from toxic exposures, after a New York Times exposé on hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a fracking, uncovered major threats to human health.
As previously reported on Rodale.com, fracking releases uranium and other radioactive material and brings them to the surface in wastewater laced with carcinogenic industrial chemicals, heavy salts, and other contaminants. Because this toxic wastewater is often trucked to other municipalities for treatment, fracking affects not just families in the immediate drilling zones, but in surrounding states, too. Inadequately treated water from fracking often contains dangerous levels of radioactive materials and other hazardous waste, and is routinely released into rivers that supply drinking water to people, according to the NYT article.
"These disturbing revelations raise the prospect that natural gas production has turned our rivers and streams into this generation’s Love Canals," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement. "The natural gas industry has repeatedly claimed that fracking can be done safely. We now know we need a full investigation into exactly how fracking is done and what it does to our drinking water and our environment."
What is fracking, exactly. Some hail it as an economic savior, while others say it's ruining their health. Emerging science suggests the temporary financial boost may come at a huge price. Unpleasant consequences of drilling for natural gas in shale formations around the country are front and center in the documentary Gasland, a documentary that was nominated for top honors in Sunday's Academy Awards (but didn't win). According to recent reports, including one on Salon.com, the natural gas industry actually urged the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to withdraw its nomination of Gasland.
While the film is full of compelling, but mostly anecdotal, evidence of families falling ill and animals dying after the big drilling rigs, chemical cocktails, and compressor stations move into town, it's important to note that a growing body of scientific evidence is finding that yes, fracking is harmful to not just the environment, but to us, too. Don't live near a fracking site? Keep reading anyway: This still concerns you.
Here are five important natural gas facts to share with your friends and family.
1. Natural gas is not clean. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, but in the course of its entire life cycle, it's actually worse than coal, long touted as the dirtiest of our fossil fuels. Because fracking involves mixing millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals into the ground at high pressure, it creates fissures in the shale that release the natural gas. Life cycle analysis expert Robert Howarth, PhD, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, discovered that anywhere from 3.6 to nearly 8 percent of the methane from shale gas drilling escapes through venting and leaks. Methane is a greenhouse gas about 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Howarth's latest life cycle calculations updated in January 2011 find that when considering the burning of natural gas, and the methane leaks that fracking creates, shale gas produces 1.20- to 2.1-fold more greenhouse gas emissions when compared to coal during a 20-year time period. Methane leaks are worse during the actual fracking process, but they continue to slowly seep over long periods of time. When considering this, natural gas is on par with coal when looking at greenhouse gas production over a 100-year period, the Cornell research shows.