Rig in Colorado working on a Niobrara shale formation well (© Les Stone / Greenpeace)

Fracking 101

Hydraulic fracturing has upended the global energy landscape and made fossil fuels big business in the United States. Mounting evidence shows that it poses serious threats to our health, environment, and climate future. Here’s a look at the fracking boom and its increasing risks.

Shale plays in the continental United States

NRDC. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Fracking in Texas

Home to two of the country’s most productive unconventional plays, the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford, Texas leads the nation in oil and natural gas production. (“Unconventional” refers to oil and gas resources in less-permeable and less-porous rock.) The state also serves as a cautionary tale for the many health and environmental consequences of fracking and other methods of fossil fuel extraction. Texas’s industries make it the top emitter of smog-forming ozone pollutants in the United States, and earthquakes are on the rise. Studies have found increased levels of harmful chemicals in water near fracking sites, suggesting that further monitoring is in order. Meanwhile, a state regulation designed to protect the public from the health impacts of fossil fuel extraction may be only loosely enforced, according to a study by Dallas news station WFAA.

Fracking in Pennsylvania

With approximately three-fifths of the state atop the Marcellus Shale play, Pennsylvania is the second-largest producer of natural gas, generating nearly one-fifth of America’s supply in 2017. Output is expected to continue to grow—though not everywhere. In 2018, the Delaware River Basin, a watershed that spans parts of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, was marked off-limits to fracking (although the threat to drinking water and the environment hasn’t been eliminated, since some proposed regulations would still allow wastewater to be disposed of in the watershed). Meanwhile, statewide concern about fracking’s hazards is mounting: According to one 2018 poll, 55 percent of residents believe fracking’s potential environmental risks outweigh its potential economic benefits—up from 37 percent in 2014. In some cases, Pennsylvania has already seen fracking’s risks play out in the form of contaminated drinking water supplies and polluted air.

Fracking in New York

In 2015, New York became the first state with significant natural gas reserves (its southern swath sits atop the Marcellus Shale play) to prohibit fracking. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation concluded that the “significant adverse public health and environmental” threats the extraction method posed far outweighed “the limited economic and social benefits that would be derived.”

Fracking in California

California’s Monterey formation was once billed as America’s “black gold mine,” estimated to hold as much as two-thirds of the country’s unconventional oil resources—that is, until a 2014 revision slashed that estimate by about 96 percent. However, as of 2017, California was still the fourth-largest producer of oil in the nation due to significant ongoing conventional production, from the largely rural Central Valley to some of the densest urban drilling sites anywhere in the world in Los Angeles and surrounding municipalities. A 2014 analysis of oil and gas development in California showed that approximately 5.4 million people live within a mile of one of the 84,000-plus existing oil and gas wells, 3,000 of which had used either hydraulic fracturing or acidizing, which is the process in which acid is pumped into a well to dissolve rock and increase permeability. When fracking does occur in California, it differs from elsewhere in the United States, as it often occurs at shallower depths and in closer proximity to drinking water sources, increasing the risk of water contamination. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has made moves to open more than one million acres of public land in the state—much of which supplies water for agricultural and urban areas—to oil and gas drilling.  

Don Martin stands with his granddaughter in front of the Murphy Oil site, located next door to his apartment in West Adams, Los Angeles.

Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

Fracking in North Dakota

Home to 20 of the country’s 100 largest oil fields, North Dakota sits atop the Bakken Shale and underlying Three Forks formations, themselves located in the larger Williston Basin (which spans portions of South Dakota, Montana, and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan). The nation’s number two crude oil state (behind Texas) since 2012, North Dakota shattered its own production records in 2018, in large part due to the improved efficiency of its fracking operations. This boom in production has come at a cost, however, particularly to land, air, and water resources. According to a 2016 Duke University study, wastewater spills from fracked oil wells in the Bakken region have caused “widespread and persistent” water and soil contamination with “clear evidence of direct water contamination.” And while North Dakota produces just 2 percent of the nation’s natural gas, its operations still flare a “substantial” amount, producing significant air pollution. According to a 2014 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, drilling and fracking operations in the Bakken oil and gas fields alone contributed as much as 3 percent of global emissions of ethane (a greenhouse gas and precursor for ozone formation).

Fracking in Florida

Although fracking is typically associated with big producers like Texas, states with far more limited oil and gas reserves are affected too. According to an expert report obtained by NRDC, both current production and the prospects for future expansion in Florida are minimal. Yet efforts continue to develop these small amounts of oil and gas, at the expense of Florida’s sensitive natural resources, including the Everglades. Florida has two oil‐producing regions: one at the western end of the Panhandle, bordering Alabama, and another in the southern part of the state, in and around the Big Cypress National Preserve, a key part of the Everglades ecosystem.

Oil well stimulation techniques such as fracking and acid matrix stimulation, or “acidizing,” facilitate production from unconventional oil deposits. Acidizing dissolves portions of the oil‐bearing rock formations through the injection of acid mixed with water and other chemicals, allowing oil to more easily flow to the well bore. In Florida, acidizing is more likely to be used than fracking due to the state’s geology. Aquifers—crucial sources of drinking water—are vulnerable to contamination because large areas are characterized by sandy soils and porous limestone. Since Florida oil fields generally lie deeper than the shallow aquifers that provide the state with fresh drinking water, acidizing techniques threaten groundwater resources. Additionally, wastewater from acidizing techniques can contain hazardous pollutants and pose threats to underground aquifers. Proposals for a statewide legislative ban on fracking and acidizing techniques have been introduced, with bipartisan support, in both houses of the state legislature.

Dozens of counties and municipalities have already said no to fracking within their respective borders—and for good reason. Oil and gas production threatens public lands, natural resources, wildlife, water supplies, and Florida tourism, a vastly larger industry in the state than oil. 

Laws and Regulations

Although evidence continues to mount about the negative impact of fracking on our water, air, and health, the industry remains seriously underregulated. Oil and gas operations benefit from a range of exemptions or limitations in regulatory coverage within the bedrock environmental statutes that are meant to protect Americans from contaminated water, hazardous waste, and polluted air.

Consider the “Halliburton loophole,” nicknamed for the largest oil and gas services company in the country and passed as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (while former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney was vice president). Unless diesel is used in the fracking fluid, it exempts hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Underground Injection Control Program of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law protecting our drinking water from pollutants.

The oil and gas industry enjoys an exemption for certain exploration and production wastes from regulation as “hazardous wastes” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Such oil and gas exploration and production wastes could include used fracking fluids, produced water, and many other types of waste. The industry also enjoys a loophole in the Clean Air Act that exempts oil and gas wells, compressor stations, and pump stations from aggregation as major sources that would otherwise have to implement pollution controls once emissions hit a certain threshold. As to the Clean Water Act, Congress exempted stormwater runoff from oil and gas exploration, production, processing, or treatment operations or transmission facilities from certain permitting requirements, provided that such stormwater is not contaminated. Bills seeking to close these and other statutory loopholes and exemptions were introduced in Congress in 2017 but have made little progress .

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is aggressively opening up more public land to fracking and proposing rollbacks of existing regulations on oil and gas operations. This includes a scaling back of methane protections as well as a repeal of fracking rules approved in 2015 by President Obama’s Bureau of Land Management. The rules, which have been held up in the courts, impose safeguards to protect water supplies from fracking on federal lands—safeguards that health and environmental advocates already believe do not go far enough.

Stricter federal oversight of the oil and gas industry would go a long way toward protecting our communities and environment, but state and local agencies can also play a significant role in governing the industry. As a counterbalance to the Halliburton loophole, for example, many states have some level of fracking chemical disclosure laws on the books (though companies often manage to skirt even those). For the most part, however, states have failed to provide adequate oversight of fracking operations, with regulations often left largely unenforced and few if any requirements to notify the public of violations and spills. But not every state is ignoring the science. Some—New York, Maryland, and Vermont—have banned fracking altogether and others, like California and Colorado, are taking important steps to provide meaningful oversight. 

Alternatives to Fracking

Though natural gas produces less carbon pollution than other fossil fuels when it burns, it is far from a “clean” energy source—especially when it comes to us thanks to fracking. As the science increasingly shows, the extraction of natural gas or oil via fracking can release significant amounts of air and water pollution that imperil the health of our communities and environment. It is for this reason that many municipalities have rallied against the fracking industry.

Wind turbines and solar panels in Palm Springs, California

Vanja Terzic/iStock

Instead of increasing our dependence on fracking and fossil fuels, the United States needs to continue to transition toward a truly clean energy economy. That means continuing to develop renewable power and improving energy efficiency, which has actually contributed more to the nation’s energy needs over the past 40 years than oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear power. It’s not just the health of communities that is at stake. As the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns, the world needs to quickly wean itself off fossil fuels—on a global scale—to avoid the catastrophic effects of a changing climate.

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