Hydraulic Fraturing: A Brief Introduction

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is a technique in which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid, most often to facilitate the extraction of oil and/or natural gas. A solution typically composed of water, sand and other proppants, thickening agents, and other chemicals is injected at high pressures into a well to create cracks in the deep formations through which oil and natural gas can flow more readily. The abundance of natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation has brought hydrofracking to the forefront of the American energy dialogue.

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A diagram about the basics of hydrofracking. (Image source)

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Hydraulic Fracturing in the Delaware River Basin: Economic Boon or Environmental Disaster?

A hydraulic fracturing site, including a wastewater impoundment and other associated features. (Image source)

Although hydrofracking in the DRB could result in job creation and other economic advantages, the uncertain allocation of these benefits, as well as the potential for human health risks and ecological damage, are cause for concern.

It seems obvious that allowing hydrofracking in the DRB would create jobs and generate revenue for the state and local businesses; and maybe it would. However, the locales that are often targeted for resource extraction lack a native workforce that possesses the skills required to benefit. Consequently, engineers, drillers, and other personnel are brought in from outside the state, diminishing the likelihood that local communities benefit from these new employment opportunities. Additionally, history has shown that properties near drilling sites often lose value in the wake of extraction operations.

Increased revenue for states, counties, and municipalities is another common selling point for hydrofracking. In 2012, Pennsylvania signed into law an impact fee to be collected from all natural gas drillers, bringing in more than $200 million. 60% of these monies were earmarked for the municipalities in which the fees are assessed, with the remaining 40% going to the state. However, many have argued that with workers flowing in to work at hydrofracking operations puts financial strain on states and municipalities to provide additional community services, such as first responders and road maintenance. Regardless of the circumstances, each state comprising the DRB would have to closely examine its tax system, insurance and bonding requirements, and drilling regulations. Perhaps most importantly, states within the DRB would have to consider the environment.

If hydrofracking were to occur in the DRB, local ecosystems would pay a price. How steep that price would be is uncertain, but history suggests that the environmental implications could be devastating and could include air emissions, high water consumption, surface and groundwater contamination, habitat fragmentation, increasing risk of earthquakes, noise pollution, and other issues. There are also potential public health implications, which have not been studied enough yet to draw definitive conclusions.

Large quantities of fresh water are required during hydrofracking. Although some of this water is recovered, it contains proppants, chemicals, brine, and natural gas and/or other hydrocarbons, and must be treated extensively before being discharged or used for any other purpose. Depending on how carefully this wastewater is handled and where it is treated, it is often the case that the treated water is discharged outside the basin, resulting in a net loss of fresh water from the area. Untreated wastewater can easily leach into groundwater aquifers, threatening public health. Increased truck traffic and generator use, construction of new roads, and forest clearing, all of which increase harmful air emissions and fragment local habitat, are virtually inevitable when developing hydrofracking sites. These effects linger long after resources have been extracted.

Drilling slurry at hydro-fracking site, Dimock, Pennsylvania

Hydrofracking slurry being pumped into a waste impoundment (Image source)

Hydrofracking should not be allowed in the DRB. Despite the near inevitability of environmental damage, however, I think that hydrofracking could be a more balanced proposition in the future, once more research has been completed and more regulatory consideration have been given.

A sunset on the Delaware Bay, one of the most critical water bodies within the Delaware River Basin. (Image source)

Sources

(1) Riverkeeper. (10/15/2012). Tell the Governor New Yorkers Don’t Want Fracking Rubber Stamped. Retrieved from http://www.riverkeeper.org/fracking/tell-the-governor-new-yorkers-don%E2%80%99t-want-fracking-rubber-stamped/

(2) Public Utility Commission. (Date unknown). Act 13 (Impact Fee). Retrieved from http://www.puc.state.pa.us/filing_resources/issues_laws_regulations/act_13_impact_fee_.aspx

(3) Democracywise. (05/02/2013). Hydrofracking’s Costs & Benefits Weighed. Retrieved from http://democracywise.syr.edu/?p=7024

External Links

US Department of Energy – Shale Gas 101

USEPA – Natural Gas Extraction: Hydraulic Fracturing

Delaware River Basin Commission – Natural Gas Drilling Index Page