Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique for extracting oil and gas reserves from deep underground rock formations using a pressurized mixture of liquids and chemicals. Fracking has only been around for about 20 years. Within that time, it has led to a historic boom in the United States fossil fuel production. It has also led to a range of public health impacts, including air pollution, groundwater contamination, toxic chemical exposure, and subsequent illnesses that are only now being examined due to the newness of the phenomenon.
Fracking has been credited for driving down U.S. energy prices, strengthening the economy, and making possible national energy independence. But the more we learn about fracking, the clearer it becomes that the industry has downplayed the costs to the environment and communities. Indeed, the energy companies that profit most from the fracking boom externalize costs and benefit from legal loopholes that allow them to pollute without consequences.
Morgan & Morgan, the country’s largest plaintiff’s firm, has offices nationwide. Our lawyers are licensed to practice in Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and other states with a heavy fracking presence. Residents who live near a fracking operation may have claims for illness or injury, decreased property value, and environmental harm. Contact us for a free review of your legal rights.
What Is Fracking?
Fracking is an unconventional extraction method for accessing oil and natural gas that are locked in deep shale rock formations.
To create the well, a vertical rig drills thousands of feet into the earth, through the water table and sediment layers, and is then angled horizontally to access fossil fuel-bearing rock formations. The well is reinforced with steel and cement casing, creating a conduit for a massive, high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and chemicals that is pumped into the well. This “hydraulic fracturing” opens up natural cracks in the bedrock that contain trapped oil and gas, which flow up the well and are captured.
Fracking methods have existed for decades, but it was only about twenty years ago that technological improvements allowed companies to apply these methods to deep, tight rock formations. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were first used in 1999 in the Barnett Shale of North Texas. Fracking soon spread to Appalachia and other areas of the U.S. From 2005 to 2016, more than 137,000 fracking wells were drilled or permitted in more than 20 states. The states with the largest number of wells fracked include:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
What Are the Risks of Fracking?
Fracking causes extensive damage to the environment and public health. Each fracked well may require up to 8 million gallons of water and 40,000 gallons of chemicals, per frack. More than 1,000 chemicals are used in fracking. Many of them are proven to be harmful to human health, including substances linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and hormone disruption. Some of the most common fracking chemicals include:
- Hydrochloric acid
- Ethylene glycol
- Sodium hydroxide
Fracking fluid that flows back out of wells is hazardous waste that contains not only chemical additives, but also harmful substances from deep in the earth, such as heavy metals and radioactive elements. Waste water must be contained, stored, disposed of, and sometimes transported, posing contamination risks. Downstream elements of fracking infrastructure, such as processing plants, pipelines, distribution lines, and storage facilities, pose additional risks.
Making matters worse, the fracking industry is poorly regulated. There is no federal law requiring drillers to report the chemicals they use in fracking. Drillers are also exempt from many federal regulations because of the so-called “Halliburton loophole” adopted in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Waste water generated by fracking is exempt from the hazardous waste provisions of the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA). Fracking is also exempt from critical safeguards in the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). As a result, fracking is largely regulated at the state level, with varying commitments and requirements.
Industrial development always outpaces public health protections. While questions remain about the dangers of fracking, mounting evidence shows that the process harms water, air, soil, the climate, humans, and wildlife.
- Water pollution: Fracking operations strain water resources and risk polluting them through spilled and leaking fracking fluids, the injection of fluids into poorly constructed wells, and inadequate wastewater management practices.
- Air pollution: Fracking can release methane, a main component of natural gas and a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Drilling activities can also release numerous other toxic air contaminants that, when combined, produce smog. The ozone levels at rural drilling sites often rival those of big, air polluted cities like Los Angeles.
- Soil contamination: Drilling waste poses a constant threat of spills and leaks, which can contaminate soil with chemicals and radioactive materials. Spills and leaks can occur at the drilling site and during transport via truck or pipeline.
- Environmental degradation: Each new fracking well requires well pads, access roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure that damages green spaces, fragments habitat, and reduces wildlife numbers. Degraded landscapes are nearly impossible to restore to their original state.
Fracking has now been studied for more than twenty years. A study published in 2019 looked at hundreds of scientific articles on fracking impacts and summarized the latest knowledge about the industry. It found that the following health outcomes are most strongly associated with fracking:
- Low birth weight
- Preterm births
- High-risk pregnancies
- Respiratory problems
- Skin disorders
- Asthma exacerbations
- Chronic sinus problems
Fracking is suspected of contributing to other health impacts, like cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, but researchers caution that these take a long time to develop, and that more long-term studies on fracking and health effects are needed. However, research on conventional fossil fuel operations has found that proximity to an active oil and gas site increases a person’s lifetime cancer risk, as well as their risks for neurological, hematological, and developmental problems.
For the People, for the Planet
Morgan & Morgan believes that everyone has the right to clean air, safe drinking water, and a healthy natural environment. That’s why we fight for the planet, against the powerful corporations that seek short-term profits at the expense of a sustainable future. Our Toxics and Environmental Litigation Group is led by Kevin Hannon, who has more than 30 years of experience taking on the largest and most notorious corporate polluters.
Environmental and health concerns about fracking, and your legal rights to hold fracking companies accountable, can be discussed during a free case review.