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The Fracking And Water Quality Debate: What You Need To Know

Fracking – the term sounds made up, but fracking is a very real and serious issue. Whether you're listening to reports on the evening news or to conversations about fluid control in the local coffee shop, it's likely that you've heard that there is a heated debate surrounding fracking and its effects on water quality. In this article, learn what fracking is, how the practice impacts water quality and what steps can be taken to protect water quality while fracking.

What is Fracking?

In today's world, alternative fuel and energy resources are highly sought after and are becoming more and more necessary as the impact of human consumption puts the environment at risk. Fracking is not a new process, having been used since the 1940s, but it has grown more popular as the need for local fuel sources has grown.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves using water, sand and chemicals to flush natural gas and oil from shale deposits deep within the earth. First, a vertical well is drilled for approximately a mile before the drill is gradually turned horizontally. The horizontal portion of the well shaft extends several thousand feet, meaning that one drilling site can be used to dig several wells.

Within the horizontal portion of the well, small perforations are made through which the water mixture is pumped. The highly pressurized spray then releases the gas and oil held within the layers of rock.

The water mixture contains:

  • 90% water
  • 9.5% sand
  • 0.5% other additives

According to the International Energy Agency, fracking may allow the United States to become the world's leading producer of oil as early as this year. Currently, the U.S. is the leading producer of natural gas.

How Does Fracking Impact Water Quality

One of the most serious concerns about fracking is how it affects the quality of both surface and ground water sources. The impacts on water supplies include:

  • Stress on water supplies due to the massive amounts of water required to complete the fracking process.
  • Contamination and pollution to both surface and groundwater supplies, due to spills and poorly constructed wells.

In 2009, the Groundwater Protection Council reported that the amount of water required to drill one shale gas well was two to four million gallons. Because water is a limited natural resource, those millions of gallons must be carefully treated, due to the chemical additives, before they can be reused or re-purposed.

During the drilling process, approximately 60 percent of the water injected into the well is immediately discharged as flow-back waste water. The waste water must be captured and either disposed of or reused after being cleaned using water quality control products, which include an assortment of valves, sensors, monitors and mass flow controllers.

The processes and products used to clean the waste water must be able to remove:

  • Dissolved solids
  • Fracturing fluid additives
  • Metals
  • Oils and gases
  • Bacteria
  • Naturally occurring radioactive materials

To date, this cleanup has been quite expensive. This has led the energy companies to look for alternative uses for the waste water produced by fracking. However, General Electric Co. has committed to spending $10 billion by the year 2020 to research and develop the possibility of "waterless" fracking methods.

What Can Be Done to Protect Water Quality While Fracking?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the total U.S. gas production will increase by 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. The debate about the safety and viability of fracking continues, but many people and organizations are searching for ways to protect water quality while taking advantage of the natural resources available in this country.

Some of the proposed water quality protection options may include:

  • Microseismic and other types of monitoring to help understand the flow of fracking fluids in an effort to prevent contamination.
  • A focus on water conservation throughout the fracking industry, to include best practices such as "closed-loop" drilling methods, which are used to recycle and limit the amount of fracking fluids.
  • Creating and maintaining better storage and transportation of contaminated water to prevent further contamination by spillage.
  • Requiring continual review of processes and practices to ensure that the most up-to-date safety methods are being used.
  • Using transparent, standardized site evaluations to determine the possible impact on local water resources before drilling begins.

Through cooperation between energy companies, government agencies and the general public, a fracking process that everyone can feel good about can be developed and sustained. Water quality control is essential to developing fracking processes that would allow energy organizations to produce a substantial internal source of natural gas and oil.

Fracking is a controversial issue and it is important to know how it may affect the water you drink and the fuel that you use to heat your home or drive your car. Energy and water are two very important components of your daily life. Use the information in this article to become part of the ongoing fracking debate and let your voice be heard.