Quora Question: The Real Impact of Fracking

Fracking and texas
Fracking is a big part of the increase in oil production. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Answer from Ava Mohsenin, Current student at McGill University:

The environmental effects of shale gas are varied—wide ranges of importance and risk level. First, many say that the burning of natural gas emits fewer greenhouse gases per unit of energy than burning alternative energy sources like oil or coal; however this may not necessarily be true when observing the full life cycle of natural gas, especially taking extraction into account. Second, another key environmental impact is the amount of water needed to access shale gas through hydraulic fracking. Estimates vary, but one study from Duke University found that 250 billion gallons of water was used to extract unconventional shale gas and oil from hydraulically fractured wells in the United States from 2005 to 2014. During the same period, the fracked wells generated about 210 billion gallons of wastewater. Injecting such vast amounts of water into the earth can also cause minor earthquakes, but greater magnitude ones could occur if there is a pre-stressed fault in the same location.

Another environmental impact is the risk of “slickwater” (a blend of water and added chemicals to improve viscosity) containing harmful chemicals and contaminating water under the ground or migrating upwards through aquifers. This contamination at the development and production stages is extremely dangerous—deep groundwater has a much higher salinity than shallow groundwater, which is fresh, and the two do not mix naturally. In the process of drilling one must be aware of the various aquifers present so the fresh groundwater does not become contaminated by the deeper saline water. The construction of wells in the development stage is the most common method for groundwater and ecosystem contamination when poorly built. A poorly constructed dam gives large potential for fluids to contaminate groundwater and the surrounding environment through fractures in the rock. These are just a few of many plausible negative environmental consequences of extracting shale gas, but some of the most significant environmental impacts even arise from the construction of wells, including accidental spills of oils, drilling muds, and potentially toxic “slickwater.”

Besides strictly environmental impacts, there are social ones too. The need for large volumes of water over short time periods for hydraulic fracking can cause stress at the coldest, driest, and most critical times of the year for communities surrounding fracking sites. There also can be spills associated with storing, mixing and pumping slickwater, meaning there is a chance chemicals involved in slickwater could infiltrate groundwater and the soil, causing potential health issues. Drilling rigs running all day and night create noise heard up to 4km away, and volatile organic compounds which contribute to smog can leave odors up to 600m from a fracking platform.

Shale gas also indirectly affects human social systems. For example, the province of Quebec could receive up to $475 million over the next 25 years from shale gas revenues, but it is highly debated as some argue it could cost taxpayers up to four times the amount of revenue that will be brought in. This is an important point regarding the distribution of economic benefits. In Quebec, natural gas accounts for only 13 percent of the energy consumed, and over one third of that is from commercial sector consumption (MEI). Therefore, the main beneficiaries of exploiting shale gas in Quebec won’t be residential households, who rely predominantly on electricity, but instead provincial commercial and businesses. Depending on the profitability, productivity and efficiency of natural gas production, the ability to export shale gas in the medium-long future would extend the beneficiaries nationwide—all which is unknown and subject to the precautionary principal. Another consideration socially is the consequence of shale boom towns—local economies that would benefit but these booms in turn degrade local infrastructure, and inflationary pressures can make some regions unaffordable for residents.


  1. How Much Water Does U.S. Fracking Really Use?
  2. 2. Al, T., Dr., Butler, K., Dr., Kunjak, R., Dr., & MacQuarrie, K., Dr. (2012). Opinion: Potential Impact of shale gas exploitation on water resources (Unpublished master's thesis). University of New Brunswick. Retrieved October 16, 2016, from McGill University Library
  3. EPA. (2016, September 6). The Process of Hydraulic Fracturing. Retrieved October 17, 2016, from The Process of Hydraulic Fracturing

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