• Leah Hess

Fracking And Its Far-Reaching Environmental Consequences

It’s no secret that the burning of fossil fuels for energy can cause harm to the environment and contribute to climate change. However, burning fuel is not the only step in energy production that has environmental consequences. Each step of oil and gas drilling processes has the potential to do damage, resulting in reduced air quality, noise pollution, light pollution, forest fragmentation and other landscape changes, and disruption to wildlife habitats. The popular drilling technique known as “fracking” adds even more problems to the mix.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” refers to the use of high pressure substances to open and widen the naturally occurring cracks in the Earth, allowing for extraction of petroleum or natural gas. This technique has allowed resource extraction from previously untapped oil-and-gas-containing shale rock. Fracking can lead to lack of water availability, chemical spills, surface water quality degradation, groundwater quality degradation, and induced seismicity (frequency of earthquakes).


Air contaminants are released in multiple stages of the fracking process leading to local, regional, and global impacts. Construction and operation of wells, transport of drilling materials, and waste disposal can result in the unintended release of chemicals like toluene, benzene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and various types of particulate matter, all of which can be harmful to local populations and site workers. On a larger scale, the release of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) results in a smog-producing reaction in the presence of sunlight. According to the CDC, smog can lead to asthma, heart problems, and even death. Although these problems are often worse for those within a close proximity to drilling sites, smog can migrate via air currents and lead to region-wide issues. For example, fracking has led to statewide increases in ozone levels and decreased air quality in Wyoming, exceeding the smog level in notoriously-smoggy Los Angeles at 124 parts per billion (the healthy limit is 75 ppb). On an even larger scale, the release of carbon dioxide and methane from fracking contributes to global warming.


A large amount of water is also required to create fracking fluid. Although the exact amount varies by location, it is estimated that each fracture requires about 3.6 million gallons of water. Because of this, fracking poses a threat to local water availability, especially in rural areas where water may already be scarce.

Moreover, the water that does make it back into local water reservoirs may be compromised. Various toxic chemicals are added to water before it can be used as frack fluid. Upon injection into shale rock, it is further contaminated by radioactive elements and heavy metals. Some of this fluid eventually makes its way back to the surface and is dumped into rivers and streams. The fluid that does not return to the surface can migrate into underground water supplies. Along with the various human health effects that have resulted from ingestion of these chemicals, contaminated water may also kill local vegetation, affecting farmers and wildlife.


Both the process of hydraulic fracturing and fluid disposal can induce seismicity, or increase the possibility of earthquakes. The high pressure used to inject fracking fluids into rock formations can cause faults to slip, triggering earthquakes. Disposal wells, located thousands of feet underground, are even more likely to disrupt these faults. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 2% of earthquakes in Oklahoma are linked to hydraulic fracking operations. Until 2019, these induced earthquakes were thought to be minor and not a significant point of concern, reaching a maximum magnitude of 4. However, multiple deadly earthquakes beginning with one in Gaoshan, China on February 25, 2019 that left 12 injured and two dead, have led to increased concern.

Where’s the policy?

Proponents of fracking may counteract these claims by asserting that fracking, if done correctly, bypasses these problems. The under-regulation of the industry, however, has and will always result in environmental damage. Companies are not mandated by federal regulations to disclose the identities or quantities of chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing operations. Federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are therefore responsible for ensuring safety on the lands they manage. This is also often inadequate. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), charged with inspecting wells on federal lands and designating ‘high priority wells’ in need of greater environmental and groundwater protection, inspected only 40 percent of the 3,486 high priority wells between 2009 and 2012. This is likely due to the overwhelming amount of fracking happening in the U.S. with little regulatory funding to match it.

Remedying these environmental ailments isn’t cheap.

Fracking corporations are responsible for the cost of replacement water supplies in cases where water quality is found to have been degraded.

  • Cabot Oil & Gas reported having spent at least $193,000 on replacement water for homes with contaminated water in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

The health problems associated with fracking also impose public health costs.

  • Air pollution from fracking in Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale region led to estimated health care costs of more than $10 million in 2008.

Habitat disruption is costly in regions whose economies depend on agriculture.

  • Mule deer and pronghorn populations, key to Wyoming’s $340 million hunting industry, dropped by 56 percent in areas undergoing extensive gas extraction in a 10 year period.


Speaking Plainly:

-Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, has experienced a 21st century boom for its ability to extract oil and gas from previously untouched shale rock.

-Fracking has environmental consequences that affect air and water quality, deplete local water supply, and disrupt local ecosystems.

-These issues can spread far beyond drilling sites, leading to regional and global impacts.

-The costs of not regulating the industry are high, and funding is necessary to mitigate inevitable long term environmental and economic damage.