Hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale gas presents the opportunity for not only an energy source, but also for serious, negative environmental impacts. From air pollution to land degradation, these impacts must be looked at and considered to better understand what fracking is. Environmental impacts are important to the fracking situation at hand because when any unnatural extraction of a natural material occurs, it will inherently impact the environment. When the process is as intense as hydraulic fracturing, the potential of a serious threat increases, and the integrity of the environment must be looked after and protected.
Additionally, the environmental impacts of fracking are important to the controversy of fracking because if industries wish to explore the benefits of fracking and use this process for several decades, all negative aspects must be considered as well. The environmental impacts fracking could have would potentially be catastrophic, and understanding of these must exist to make informed decisions. While many argue that the extraction of natural gas will give the United States energy independence and economic benefits, the uncertainty of these impacts and potential loss of environmental services are far too important to ignore.
The controversy of fracking, including the environmental issues associated with it, is part of a larger energy issue that affects all communities and people. Understanding how fracking will impact the environment, and therefore all aspects of life in these natural areas, will allow people to form opinions on fracking. These opinions can be part of a greater decision on which direction our energy use and industries should head – in a sustainable or unsustainable direction.
There are a great many environmental concerns raised by the process of hydraulic fracturing including the creation or air, noise, and visual pollution, the potential for chemical spills, radioactivity associated with fracking processes, impacts on and disturbance of natural lands, and impacts on biodiversity. Studies of these impacts are relatively limited, due to the newness of this type of intense hydraulic fracturing, and there is some level of uncertainty in these issues. The impacts that have been investigated, however, do show a strong correlation with the presence of fracking in the area.
Air pollution created by fracking activities is the greatest threat to the environment. Air pollution leads to decreased air quality for all life in the area and can even contribute to climate change. The most threatening component of air pollution that fracking creates is methane, a major component of greenhouse gas pollution (Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, 2011). Methane is released into the atmosphere as a fugitive emission, or an emission of a gas from pressurized equipment due to leaks or irregular releases of gases. This can occur through leaks in processing equipment and pneumatic devices. A pneumatic device is one that is operated by air or by the pressure or exhaustion of air.
Methane presents a serious problem to the environment because as methane is vented into the atmosphere, global warming is amplified, which contributes to an already concerning problem. While some may argue that burning natural gas for energy is a cleaner solution to burning other materials, the amount of methane gas leaking during production negates the cleaner-burning advantages and can be 20% more harmful to the environment than coal (Lovejoy, 2012). In a 100-year period, methane is 21 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Recent studies have shown a strong correlation between natural gas industry- produced methane and atmospheric methane levels; as shale gas production has increased tenfold since 2005, the atmospheric methane levels have also been rising since 2006 (Lavelle, 2012).
To address this problem, the Environmental Protection Agency has established a new regulation that states all gas companies must begin capturing air emissions, including methane, by 2015 (Eilperin and Mufson, 2012). In the meantime, companies will be required to flare their emissions. While the EPA believes this is a wasteful action, as methane could have other useful applications, it will eliminate 90% of volatile organic compounds and break down the methane into water and carbon dioxide.
Other air pollutants created by fracking that are of concern include nitrogen oxides; volatile organic compounds (VOCs); benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX); carbon monoxide; sulfur dioxide; particulate matter (PM); ground level ozone, created by the combination of VOCs and nitrous oxides; and hydrogen sulfide (League of Women Voters, 2009). Many of these compounds are created during transportation and production of shale gas, but can occur during any phase of production, and can be highly toxic and harmful. Overall, air emissions contribute to 2.4% of the overall environmental impact of fracking (Elcock, 2007).
Noise pollution, while not the greatest pollution threat, does create problems in the environment. The noise created by the all phases, from construction to deconstruction, can last between 800 and 2,500 days (Broomfield, 2012). This can disturb the natural habitats of many animals by deterring them from being in these areas. Many animals may use these sites as their everyday habitats, areas to migrate through, and even areas to find mates in.
Visual impacts poses many of the same threats and are especially damaging during the four-week construction period (Broomfield, 2012). The visual impact can be in the form of light pollution or the visible presence of fracking machinery. Light pollution occurs in these areas because fracking activities persist though all hours of the night. Since there is no relief from the strong lights at the well pads, animals that are nocturnal are faced with disruptions in their daily life activities. Even animals that are not nocturnal can have disturbed sleeping patterns from these intense lights. Additionally, the presence of these large machines can affect migratory patterns and scare away organisms from their niche. A niche is the area that a specific organism does especially well in and is specialized to live in.
All of these impacts were documented in a study on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing in Europe (Broomfield, 2012). Air pollution presented high cumulative risks during four of the six different stages of fracking and overall was presented as a high risk (Table 1). Noise and visual impacts varied across different stages of fracking, and cumulatively noise impacts were a high risk and visual impacts were a moderate risk (Table 1).
Chemical spills are of great concern to the public and the environment due to the great, unknown risks associated with these events. When chemical spills occur, the chemicals can leach into the soils and persist there for an extended period of time. This can lead to the death of plants and even agricultural crops in the area. Once the chemicals are incorporated into the topsoil, it is extremely difficult to remove them. In Bradford County, Pa., on July 4, 2012, 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled at a well pad operated by Chief Oil and Gas. (Detrow, 2012). The Department of Environmental Protection conducted an investigation and blamed valve failure for the accident. While 4,000 gallons were successfully captured in a containment pond, 700 gallons still moved past the well pad site and made their way into the soil as well as a nearby creek. In this creek, a small fish kill occurred shortly after the contaminants reached the waterway, making it obvious the potential harm these chemicals could cause in the environment if released.
While radioactive materials occur naturally within soils in the ground, the type and amount of radiation that fracking of the Marcellus shale is contributing is of great concern. Fracking brings to the surface radioactive materials that could contaminate nearby lands for thousands of years (Grassroots Environmental Education, 2012). Radium-226, a radioactive material, is the main radioactive element found in the Marcellus shale, and it has a half-life of 1,600 years. This means that in 1,600 years, only half of the material that exists will have decayed and no longer be harmful. When these materials enter the soil, they can cause the death of plants in the area as well as agricultural lands and crops.
The disturbance of natural lands is another environmental impact highly correlated to fracking activities. This disturbance can come in the form of forest fragmentation, the creation of roads and increase in traffic, and even edge effect.
Forest fragmentation occurs when forested areas are split by the presence of machines and vehicles, changing contiguous forests into smaller, more isolated areas. Fracking often creates forest fragmentation, which can lead to the loss of soil integrity, the death of native species of plants and animals, the creation of the edge effect, and disturbance to all organisms in the area. Some estimates have said that Pennsylvania could lose between 38,000 and 90,000 acres of forest cover by 2030 from fracking (Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, 2011), which would severely fragment the forests of these areas. On average, companies clear between three and four acres of land per well pad.
There are both direct and indirect impacts that affect the land around a well pad. Direct impacts include the direct clearing of land for the pad site, as well as land cleared for infrastructures such as the roads (Johnson, 2011). This can account for approximately 8.8 acres of land lost (Table 2). Indirect impacts include land lost adjacent to the site, which can extend about 300 feet, and this is due to forest fragmentation, the creation of new forest edges, and changes in habitat conditions. These total to about 21.2 acres lost, giving a total of about 30 acres of land being lost to one site (Johnson, N., 2011) (Table 2).
State parks face a particularly unique challenge with fracking. In Pennsylvania, the state does not own rights to the minerals that underlie nearly 80% of all parks (Lavelle, 2010). The private owners can sell the rights to the minerals, which means that fracking companies can easily buy these rights and exploit the lands. Many fear what would happen in such a situation, and there is reason to have these fears. In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service conducted a study in the Fernow Experimental Forest in the Monongahela Nation Forest in West Virginia after fracking fluids from a nearby well pad were sprayed on trees, killing them (Kusnetz, 2011). This application of fracking fluids was intentional and a method of disposal called land-application. Immediately after application, there was an apparent impact, as massive foliage losses occurred and trees began to shed their barks (Figure 1). Initially, the project killed approximately 1,000 trees and caused damage to the ground cover as well. A year later, in 2009, the number of trees affected had increased, and dead foliage was still prevalent (Figure 2).
Much of the land disturbance is caused by the presence of trucks and traffic that normally does not exist in these areas. Since the companies cut into the forests, fragmenting the area, the roads are not always well constructed or planned. Some sites will see trucks moving between 7,000 and 11,000 times for a single ten-well pad and on average 250 truck trips are made daily to an individual site (Broomfield, 2012), all of which create significant road damage. In addition to this, these massive trucks and heavy equipment can lead to soil compaction. Soil compaction can occur as topsoil compaction, which is caused by tire pressure and can severely reduce plant productivity in the short term, and subsoil compaction, which is caused by axel loads and reduces productivity for decades (League of Women Voters, 2009). Cumulatively, the impact is decreased soil percolation and increased runoff of water, leading ultimately to less growth of vegetation and more soil erosion.
Loss of biodiversity is a great threat to Pennsylvania, because out of the 329 species in the Marcellus drilling regions, 132 species, or 40%, are globally rare and critically endangered in Pennsylvania. These species include the green salamander and the snow trillium. In addition to these rare species, Pennsylvania may see a decrease in populations of the Northern Flying Squirrel, the Northern Goshawk, the Scarlet Tanager, and the Black-Throated Blue Warbler. Scarlet Tanager populations could decrease by 23% and the Black-Throated Blue Warbler could see decreases between 10% and 40% (Johnson, 2011).
Decreases in these populations would be seen mainly due to the increase in edge effect. The edge effect occurs when an area is fragmented, creating more edges in an area. Some edges can increase as much as 1,500 feet, leading to a significant change in the landscape. This can push out species native to these areas and make way for new, invasive species. Many predators thrive along edges and forage for resources and other animals, creating an uninhabitable area for many species (Blankenship, 2011). Additionally, construction can create ditches, making it harder for amphibians to move around, and can create changes in canopy cover, increasing the amount of light in a forest and changing growth rates of plants (League of Women Voters, 2009).
The impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment raise concern as to whether this is a process that should be continued in the future. With the economic gains and the claims by some that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to other fuels, it is easy to support fracking activities. However, when the whole picture is considered, fracking tells a much different story, one that could destroy our air, our lands, and the life that exists there.
As citizens, I believe it is most important to focus on the most threatening aspect of environmental impacts: air pollution. The best way to address this problem is to first talk to local agencies and industries and find out who is polluting, who is not within regulations, and what is being done about it. If the proper actions are not being taken to control pollution by fracking industries, then actions should be taken and citizens can make recommendations for these actions. Some recommendations could include: using lower toxicity of fracking chemicals to minimize the quantities of the chemicals needed; burn the emitted gases to capture any other air pollutants that may be escaping during production; use low bleed pneumatic devices to reduce methane emissions up to 90%; and use electric motors instead of combustion engines. Citizen involvement and action is the most efficient way to begin to protect our environment and reduce the harmful effects of fracking.