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Aerial of Gas well Marcellus Shale Formation in northern West Virginia

Aerial of Gas well Marcellus Shale Formation in northern West Virginia (6381380, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

What is Fracking?

Let's Talk Science with files from Amaya Singh

Summary

The fracking process gets natural gases out of rocks. This process can have effects on freshwater, water quality and even earthquakes!

Do you know where your household electricity comes from? Chances are, at least some of it is produced by burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels come from the remains of ancient animals and plants. Coal, oil, and natural gases are the most common fossil fuels. 

But where do these fuels come from? You might have heard of methods like oil drilling, coal mining, and fracking. What exactly is fracking, though? And why has it attracted so much attention?

Deep underground, over millions of years, large deposits of natural gases have become trapped inside layers of rock.  Methane, propane, and butane are examples of these natural gases. Shale formations are especially likely to contain vast amounts of natural gases. Shale is a rock composed of clay and various other minerals. Deposits in shale are a huge potential source of energy. But shale is extremely deep and impermeable. It will not let fluid pass through. This makes it difficult to access those natural gases.

Utica Shale near the town of Donnaconna, Quebec. The darker layers are shale and the lighter layers are limestone. A writing pen is shown for scale
Utica Shale near the town of Donnaconna, Quebec. The darker layers are shale and the lighter layers are limestone. A writing pen is shown for scale (Source: National Energy Board).

Did you know?

The shales in the Horn River Basin of British Columbia are estimated to be from the Devonian period. That makes them around 385 million years old!

What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a process for extracting natural gases.  Fracking involves drilling a well into the ground. Usually, those depths are over 1 500 metres. Fracking fluid is a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals. It is injected into the well at extremely high pressure. This breaks the underground rock apart and creates fissures, or cracks. These fissures allow the natural gases to move into the well. Eventually, these gases flow up to the surface.

Process of hydraulic fracturing
Process of hydraulic fracturing (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science using an image from normaals via iStockphoto).

What are the pros of fracking?

People who support fracking say it creates jobs. In Canada, it increases domestic energy production. That means we can produce energy here in Canada instead of importing energy resources from other countries. 

Fracking also gives people access to large reserves of natural gas. Natural gas is a fuel that burns cleaner than coal or oil.

That all sounds pretty good. But is there a downside?

What are the cons of fracking?

People’s concerns about fracking are mostly environmental. People are worried about the effect of fracking on climate change. Fracking can release methane. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas (GHG). It is responsible for about 25% of the warming caused by human activities. Methane is also responsible for about 15% of Canada’s GHG emissions

Did you know?

Methane in the atmosphere traps approximately 30 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

People also worry about how fracking affects water. For example, people worry about water conservation. Fracking uses a lot of fresh water. Fracking a well can require between 5.7 and 56.8 million litres of fresh water. Usually, most of this water is not reusable. It becomes wastewater. This wastewater can also leak into local lakes and rivers.

People also worry about water contamination. Drinking water often comes from aquifers above shale formations. Normally, this water is safe from the methane trapped deep below the Earth’s surface. But fracking creates new pathways in the rock. New pathways can let gases pass between rock layers and into these water sources. People worry that these pathways will allow methane to leak into people’s water wells.

Scientists at Duke University studied water contamination near the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. They found that 82% of homes close to fracking wells had high levels of methane in their drinking water. The closer a home was to the well, the higher the concentration of methane in its drinking water.

Some of the concerns with fracking
Some of the concerns with fracking (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science using an image from normaals via iStockphoto).

Did you know?

Some fracking occurs in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But most fracking operations in Canada take place in Alberta and northeastern British Columbia.

People who work in the natural gas industry say the risk of this kind of contamination is very low. There are typically several hundred metres feet of impermeable rock between aquifers and the shale deposits. However, some companies prefer to use shallow fracking wells.

People who work in fracking point out that contamination has only occurred in rare cases. In these cases, something went wrong. For example, the well was not drilled properly. Or, there was something wrong with the casing on the pipes. The casings prevent the gas from escaping from the pipes. 
Governments are creating tougher water regulations. Some companies have even developed waterless fracking techniques.

Fracking fluid itself is also a bit of a mystery. It’s 99% water and sand. But its exact composition is classified as a “trade secret”. This means that companies don’t have to disclose the formula. So far, many chemicals have been identified in fracking fluid. Many of them are toxic. 

Fracking can have other effects. It is hard to predict rock fracture lengths. That is especially true if they hit naturally-occurring fault lines. Also, the injection of fracking wastewater back into the ground can trigger seismic activity, or earthquakes. A 2019 study in British Columbia found that there are a number of different factors that impact how likely it is that fracking will cause an earthquake. The main factor is the tectonic makeup of an area. For instance, the area directly east of the Canadian Rockies is much more prone to seismic activity than the majority of Saskatchewan. That is because of the location of the tectonic fault lines

Did you know?

In the Central and Eastern United States, over 600 low-magnitude earthquakes related to fracking activities have been recorded up to 2019.  

Still, opponents say the risks outweigh the benefits. So for now, the debate continues!

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Prior to reading this article, did you know what the term fracking means?
  • Is fracking an issue where you live? Explain.
  • How would you feel if an exploration company wanted to explore for potential fracking sites near your community? Explain?
     
Connecting and Relating
  • Prior to reading this article, did you know what the term fracking means?
  • Is fracking an issue where you live? Explain.
  • How would you feel if an exploration company wanted to explore for potential fracking sites near your community? Explain?
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Could fracking shale in bedrock to release natural gas be part of a sustainable development program? Explain.
  • What level of risk to groundwater contamination should we accept when companies seek to extract oil or natural gas by processes such as fracking? Explain.
  • The contents of “fracking fluids” are described as trade secrets and therefore not made available to the public. Should the types of chemicals in such industrial processes be withheld from the public? Why or why not?
  • As accessible sources of gas and petroleum decrease, more resources will be needed to find the few deposits remaining. Is this the best use of our modern technologies and human endeavours? Explain.
  • Fracking has opened up new regions to produce oil and gas. What are the implications of expanding oil and gas production through fracking?
  • Other than the oil and gas industry, what are some other sources of methane gas that are contributing to global warming?
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Could fracking shale in bedrock to release natural gas be part of a sustainable development program? Explain.
  • What level of risk to groundwater contamination should we accept when companies seek to extract oil or natural gas by processes such as fracking? Explain.
  • The contents of “fracking fluids” are described as trade secrets and therefore not made available to the public. Should the types of chemicals in such industrial processes be withheld from the public? Why or why not?
  • As accessible sources of gas and petroleum decrease, more resources will be needed to find the few deposits remaining. Is this the best use of our modern technologies and human endeavours? Explain.
  • Fracking has opened up new regions to produce oil and gas. What are the implications of expanding oil and gas production through fracking?
  • Other than the oil and gas industry, what are some other sources of methane gas that are contributing to global warming?
     
Exploring Concepts
  • What does impermeable mean? How does this relate to fracking?
  • What is an aquifer? How do people access an aquifer and why would they have to?
  • Fracking fluid remains a mystery but why it is a concern for residents near fracking sites?
  • How does hydraulic fracturing affect the lithosphere? Why would fracking potentially increase seismic activity in a particular areas? Explain.
  • Methane is described as a “potent greenhouse gas”. What chemical properties does methane possess that make it such a potent greenhouse gas? Explain.
     
Exploring Concepts
  • What does impermeable mean? How does this relate to fracking?
  • What is an aquifer? How do people access an aquifer and why would they have to?
  • Fracking fluid remains a mystery but why it is a concern for residents near fracking sites?
  • How does hydraulic fracturing affect the lithosphere? Why would fracking potentially increase seismic activity in a particular areas? Explain.
  • Methane is described as a “potent greenhouse gas”. What chemical properties does methane possess that make it such a potent greenhouse gas? Explain.
     
Media Literacy
  • When controversial practices to extract natural resources are publicised, there are usually two sides to the story. Typically the company involved and local residents are at odds. Who can be believed when both sides present their “facts”? Explain why is it rarely a clear cut case for either side.
  • When the benefits and risks associated with resource extraction are explored on television programs, the risks often get a greater focus than the benefits. Explain why the documentary producers might take this approach.
     
Media Literacy
  • When controversial practices to extract natural resources are publicised, there are usually two sides to the story. Typically the company involved and local residents are at odds. Who can be believed when both sides present their “facts”? Explain why is it rarely a clear cut case for either side.
  • When the benefits and risks associated with resource extraction are explored on television programs, the risks often get a greater focus than the benefits. Explain why the documentary producers might take this approach.
     
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video support teaching and learning in Earth & Environment related to oil & gas, fossil fuels, rocks & minerals, fresh water, water quality, earthquakes & volcanoes. Concepts introduced include fossil fuel, fracking, natural gases, shale formations, hydraulic fracturing, fissures, greenhouse gas (GHG), water contamination and aquifer layer. 
  • After reading the article and viewing the Learn More video, Facts about Fracking, teachers could have students consider the potential consequences of having a fracking operation starting in their region or near their town. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Consequence Mapping learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Teachers could also have students consider the issue of fracking from different perspectives by conducting an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Ready-to use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles are available in [Goggle doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • To consolidate learning from the article and video, students could be provided with an Exit Slip. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Exit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
     
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video support teaching and learning in Earth & Environment related to oil & gas, fossil fuels, rocks & minerals, fresh water, water quality, earthquakes & volcanoes. Concepts introduced include fossil fuel, fracking, natural gases, shale formations, hydraulic fracturing, fissures, greenhouse gas (GHG), water contamination and aquifer layer. 
  • After reading the article and viewing the Learn More video, Facts about Fracking, teachers could have students consider the potential consequences of having a fracking operation starting in their region or near their town. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Consequence Mapping learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Teachers could also have students consider the issue of fracking from different perspectives by conducting an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Ready-to use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles are available in [Goggle doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • To consolidate learning from the article and video, students could be provided with an Exit Slip. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Exit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
     

Learn more

Fracking explained: opportunity or danger (2013)

This video (5:03 min.) from Kurzgesagt explains fracking in five minutes!

Gas in, gas out: the waterless fracking alternative (2015)

As concerns mount about the vast amounts of water used in hydraulic fracturing, an Alberta company is touting a new waterless fracking approach.

Fracking Can Be Done Safely, but Will It Be? (2013)

This article from Scientific American looks at a 2013 report that says fracking for natural gas doesn’t have to be an environmental disaster.

Canada’s official greenhouse gas inventory (2019)

Every year, Canada prepares and submits a national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The report from Environment Canada covers anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions by sources and removals by sinks as well as annual emissions estimates dating back to 1990.

Facts about Fracking (2013)

This SciShow video (4:31 min.) has a summary of fracking - what it is and why we do it.

EPA's Study of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources 

Here you can access a number of resources and publications related to this study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

References

Bourzac, K. (2018, November 21). Chemical clues found for methane leaks caused by fracking. Chemical & Engineering News.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, March 27). Fracking.

Environment and Climate Change Canada. (2019, April 1). About methane emissions.

Government of Canada. (2018, August 21). Natural gas facts.

King, H. M. (n.d.). What is shale? Geology.com.

Minkow, D. (2017, April 6). What you need to know about fracking in Canada. The Narwhal.

National Geographic. (2013, October 4). Fracking water: It’s just so hard to clean.

NaturalGas.org. (2013, September 20). Natural gas and the environment.

Amaya Singh

Amaya Singh is a PhD student in Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. She believes in the power of science, medicine and technology to transform lives. During breaks from school she loves ballet dancing, travelling, and watching big-wave surfing.