How Does Fracking Affect the Environment?

Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, is a technique used to extract oil and natural gas from underground shale rock.

This process involves injecting a pressurized liquid—mostly containing water, sand or other chemicals—into subterranean bedrock to create cracks from which oil and gas can be extracted.

Fracking has been around since the 1940s, but over the past decade the practice has boomed in the United States.

What Are The Environmental Impacts of Fracking?

Fracking has proven controversial due to some its environmental impacts, not least the fact that fossil fuel extraction and burning is contributing to a warming climate.

"The first thing to remember here is that the scientific consensus is that, if we are to have any hope of averting catastrophic climate change, we can only afford to burn around one third of the fossil fuels that we can extract using conventional methods," Keith Baker, a research fellow in fuel poverty and energy policy with the Built Environment Asset Management Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University in the United Kingdom, told Newsweek.

"But fracking also requires more energy to extract the same amount of gas than conventional methods—what we call the energy return on investment (EROI)—so the contribution of fracking to climate change is cumulatively even greater than conventional extraction. Those facts, alone, should rule out fracking and all other forms of unconventional extraction," he said.

According to Mark Ireland, a lecturer in energy geoscience, at Newcastle University in the U.K., while the use of natural gas extracted by fracking operations could substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions where it replaces coal, this does not mean that it is a sustainable or clean energy resource.

Fracking can also cause several forms of pollution.

"As with other methods of oil and gas extraction, when done well the negative environmental impacts can be minimized," Ireland told Newsweek.

"However, bad practice has the potential to lead to, for example, hazardous spills at the surface and contamination of groundwater."

Unfortunately, the fracking boom in the United States has been often been characterized by "poor practice," Richard Davies, Pro-Vice Chancellor: Global at Newcastle University, told Newsweek.

A fracking operation
Stock image: A fracking site. Fracking operations have been linked with numerous health impacts. iStock

Fracking can lead to air pollution when methane, a potent greenhouse gas, leaks from the extraction equipment, according to Baker. It can also release significant quantities of nitrous oxides—another group of potent greenhouse gases. Both methane and nitrous oxides can contribute to climate change.

In addition to air pollution, fracking operations can lead to water pollution, due to the leaking of toxic chemicals that are pumped into the ground when extracting fossil fuels.

"Unsurprisingly, the fracking industry is very cagey about releasing data on the types of chemicals used, but they are known to include the BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) as well as ozone and hydrogen sulphide," Baker said.

Fracking can also be a source of noise pollution for those living nearby. The equipment used for these operations create noise, as do the vehicles that supply the wells and carry the gas away, which frequently pass in and out of fracking sites.

The fracking industry is also highly mobile, quickly moving from one site to another, which "destroys landscapes," according to Baker.

"Unlike conventional drilling, which extracts large amounts of fossil gas and oil from underground reservoirs, fracking wells capture relatively small amounts of gas and, once they've extracted all they can, they move on to other sites," he said. "This also means more vehicles have to be used, as otherwise pipelines would have to be constantly extended to follow the wells."

In rare cases, fracking operations can also trigger earthquakes, although these quakes tend to be minor and not powerful enough to cause damage.

What Are The Health Impacts of Fracking?

The recent fracking boom has helped turn the United States into the top producer of hydrocarbons in the world. But this expansion has meant that millions of people in the country now live near fracking sites.

In fact, one 2017 study estimated that around 4.7 million people live within one mile of an unconventional oil or gas well in the U.S., potentially increasing the risk of certain health impacts.

Exposure to pollution from fracking operations has been linked to several short and long-term health problems in people, according to Baker. The use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as the BTEX chemicals and others is a particular cause for concern.

Baker said health problems associated with pollution from fracking have included headaches, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, watery eyes, bloody noses, rashes, coughs, chest pain, asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stomach and intestinal irritations, liver damage, and numerous forms of cancer.

"Respiratory problems, such as shortness of breath and mild to severe asthma, can be caused by water that is contaminated with chemicals from the fracking fluid that seeps into the groundwater supply and can become regular parts of the water supply for homes," Shashi Kant Yadav, an environmental law scholar at the University of Surrey, U.K., told Newsweek.

Some studies have also shown that pregnant women living close to fracking sites have suffered premature births, and given birth to babies with low birth weights.

Health impacts have also been seen in animals, with one 2012 study of farmers across six U.S. states finding reproductive, gastrointestinal and neurological problems in those that had been exposed to fracking chemicals in the water or air.

"And, of course, if humans then eat the meat from those animals the chemicals accumulate in our own bodies," Baker said.

According to Davies, however, it is sometimes difficult to draw firm conclusions from the research on fracking's health impacts due to the difficulty in confidently demonstrating cause and effect.

A fracking operation
Stock image: A fracking operation in a mountainous area. Fracking has several environmental impacts. iStock

"We still don't know everything about how fracking affects health," Yadav said. "For example, a study done as recently as April 2022 found that 'people who lived within 10 kilometres of at least one hydraulically fractured wells in the year before or during pregnancy had a significantly higher risk of major congenital anomalies or small-at-gestational-age births.'

But "more research needs to be done to find out what exactly led to such strange birth outcomes."

Living close to fracking sites also appears to take its toll on the mental health of local residents, according to research conducted by Stephanie Malin, an associated professor of sociology at Colorado State University, among others.

Malin has found that many people living near fracking sites report experiencing chronic stress and depression.

"The negative mental health impacts relate to structural and institutional factors such as lack of access to useful information about health and environmental risks and little opportunity to meaningfully participate in decision-making processes," she told Newsweek.

"The latter is an example of procedural inequity, a key component of environmental injustice."

"These inequitable institutional contexts create two main drivers of negative mental health, according to my research: uncertainty about health and environmental risks and powerlessness in making decisions about where to site production, whether it happens, et cetera," she said.