Maryland Coastal Bays

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Fracking impacts environmental and personal health - December 21, 2014

This week, New York legislators caught some by surprise by announcing that they are banning fracking in their state after receiving a comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of fracking done along the Pennsylvania-New York border. Fracking has been a major topic for controversy over the past few years, as several European countries, including France and Bulgaria, have already banned fracking in their countries outright with other countries, such as the U.S. banning it in specific regions or communities. But what is fracking?

Fracking is a specific process to extract gas and oil from shale rock. The process of fracking starts by locating the pockets of gas and oil located within the shale rock deep underground, sometimes more than a mile under the surface. Once the area is located, they begin drilling down to the shale rock layer, using both vertical and horizontal drilling. Once they drill down to the shale rock layer, they than inject a high-pressure water mixture into the rock layer in order to “fracture” it, releasing the gas inside. The water mixture is a combination of water, sand and chemicals that break apart the shale. The released oil and gas then travels upwards, back up to head of the well to be collected and processed. 

The fracking process has become more commonplace as drilling and detecting technologies have become cheaper and more effective, however fracking is still potentially dangerous. Ultimately, there are three major problems caused by the use of fracking. 

The first problem is getting everything to the job site. Like any other drilling process, literally tons of heavy mining equipment must be transported to the site, along with huge amounts of water to liberate the oil and gas. Moving all this equipment costs time and money along with the huge amounts of gasoline needed to transport all the necessary components to the job site. Once the equipment is there, they have to set it up and begin drilling, which can be an invasive and annoying process to local wildlife and communities. 

The second major problem that occurs from fracking stems from the water mixture they use to extract the gas and oil from the shale. Once the water mixture is injected into the shale, it is not extracted afterward, leaving it to percolate through the ground and potentially into the ground water. Due to the use of certain chemicals in the fracking process, this means that potential carcinogenic, or possible cancer causing, chemicals may end up in the groundwater and drinking water of local communities. 

Groundwater contamination has led to several major lawsuits over the years, ranging from individuals to communities suing fracking and natural gas companies and their subsidiaries. These lawsuits stem from the contamination of the groundwater, leading to unsafe drinking water in local communities, which is against what the Safe Drinking Water Act protects. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 ensures clean and safe drinking water for all Americans, regardless of income or location. By contaminating drinking water of local communities, fracking and natural gas companies are damaging the health of people in order to make money with an unsustainable practice, which leads to friction between communities, businesses, and individuals. 

Another major problem caused by fracking is the potential for natural disaster. In 2011, two small earthquakes, of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude, hit near Blackpool, England, after fracking processes near that area. Scientists found that these two earthquakes were the direct result of the fracking process taking place outside the city. Due to the fracking process, the shale rock was fractured, with the water mixture lubricating the rocky layer in order to extract the gas and oil. Because the rocks were lubricated, it made it easier for them to slip and slide past each other, which caused the fault in the rocks to shake, leading to the earthquake. 

According to the report, the fault was small, only about 100 meters by 100 meters, and the rocks moved only about one centimeter, however due to the rocks moving about, this caused earthquakes to occur. Due to the faults miniscule size, scientists and researchers for both the fracking company and the government could not find it using modern technology, hence the surprise when the earthquakes occurred. This is extremely unsettling as many scientists believe that small faults like this could occur frequently in deep rock layers and currently without the ability to spot these small faults, this could lead to more possible earth tremors and earthquakes.

Here in Maryland, fracking has been a controversial topic, especially in the mountainous western counties. Governor Martin O'Malley concluded that fracking could be done safely in Maryland, however only if safeguards were added to prevent against air and groundwater pollution and other such problems. There are advocates for both sides in Maryland; fracking companies want to access the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation in the western counties while environmental and other groups warn against the possible negative impacts and health risks. Follwing in Governor O'Malleys footsteps, Governor-elect Larry Hogan believes that fracking would be a boon for the local and state economies; provided it is done safely. Banning fracking in Maryland is certainly a possibility; however it seems like we are currently moving towards fracking in our state with heavy regulations and safeguards, which help to ease concerns but are certainly not a guarantee that there will be no negative consequences.  

 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 


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