How Fracking Works
In short, fracking is done by injecting water and chemicals into the ground to break up rock formations and release fossil fuels trapped inside. This process requires a number of steps:
- The oil company drills a hole called a “wellbore” down to a layer of rock called “shale.” This layer can be very near the surface or several thousands of feet deep. When it’s the latter, it can take over a month to drill down.
- After the drill penetrates the shale layer, it turns sideways and drills horizontally. The horizontal drilling can extend over a mile. The drilled hole is then reinforced with steel and cement.
- The oil company lowers a “perforating gun” into the hole they drilled, which contains a series of small explosives that “perforates” the hole’s steel and cement casing.
- Fracking begins. The oil company pumps a chemical “slurry” – a combination of water, oil, and chemicals – into the hole at high pressure. Shale is a type of rock that splits into thin layers under stress. The chemical slurry fractures the shale, providing an exit route for oil and gas that was previously trapped in these layers of stone.
- Contaminated wastewater that comes back up to the surface is removed and stored in pits, tanks, or underground wells.
- Newly-released fracked gas flows out of the well.
The Dangers of Fracking
Hydraulic fracking produced 67% of America’s fracked gas and 50% of our oil, but just because it’s used frequently doesn’t mean it’s safe. Fracking poses grave risks to public health, clean air and water, and a stable climate. Colorado has over 50,000 active fracking wells, many of which are located in suburban neighborhoods on Colorado’s front range. In fact, over 247,000 Coloradans live within ½ mile of an active oil and gas well.
Fracking has been linked to a “massive” increase in methane emissions. In the 20 years immediately after methane is released into the atmosphere, its warming power is 80 times greater than CO2’s. That means eliminating methane is the fastest way to slow global warming in the short term. Fracked wells might have leakage rates as high as 7.9%, and methane leakage is remarkably hard to measure, so the true extent of the damage might not be known for years. Natural gas is often touted as a “bridge fuel,” a less carbon-emitting alternative to coal. But the methane leakage from fracking cancels out any carbon benefit from using natural gas, and may actually make it more damaging to the climate than coal.
In fact, 350 Colorado research shows that oil and gas production accounts for over 70% of Colorado’s statewide greenhouse gas emissions.
Fracking has been shown repeatedly to contaminate groundwater. The slurry used in the fracking process is stored in unlined pits dug into the ground, allowing its chemicals to seep into the soil. Contamination can also occur when the steel and concrete surrounding the wells is inadequately reinforced or when fracking fluids are spilled at any point in the process. Fracking can also use groundwater resources in times of low water availability – when places like Colorado are in a severe drought, using limited water resources for fracking prevents it from going to essential human uses and puts the remainder of that limited supply at risk.
Pollution from fracking is released into the air and water, and it subsequently makes its way into our bodies. Exposure to fracking can lead to “severe headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, cardiac problems, and birth defects [and potentially] cancer.” And fossil fuel companies are not required to disclose which chemicals they use in the process, so doctors treating people who live or work near fracking sites don’t know what their patients have been exposed to or the most effective treatment. Peer-reviewed studies indicate that the health impacts of fracking are more severe within 2,500 feet of a fracking well.
Fracking proponents often argue that the economic benefits of fracking help communities enough to outweigh all other considerations. However, this masks a complex, unequal reality. The American Economic Association has shown that where income increased, quality of life decreased in almost equal measure, and required residents to pay for changes in local amenities due to fracking. It’s also difficult to determine who will benefit from a fracking windfall – some counties get rich, others don’t see any measurable increase in income or local economic activity. Furthermore, the fracking industry is remarkably unstable. The 60 largest fracking firms don’t generate enough cash to cover their operating expenses. Companies like Chesapeake Energy stay in the black through selling assets and leasing – i.e. selling a promise of future oil. Unsurprisingly, they went bankrupt in 2020.
Financial assurances and bonding also enrich fracking companies at the expense of Coloradans. Companies eager to get rid of their no-longer-productive land and offset their negative cash flow hastily sell off their old wells. These “orphaned” wells then fall to the public to clean up, at great expense. Colorado has over 60,000 of these orphaned wells, and the cost to plug just 89 of them (0.0015%) is estimated at $16 million.
Fracking sites, which have proven negative outcomes for human health and safety, are disproportionately located near poor communities and communities of color. In Northern Colorado, Bella Romero Academy was exposed to unsafe levels of benzene from nearby fracking operations. In addition to the long-term health impacts these students will face, benzene also causes immediate symptoms like headaches and eye irritation, which affects their performance in school, and thus their academic futures.
How We’re Taking Action
- Join 350 Colorado’s Stop Fracking Committee to take action against fracking in your community (even if no one’s fracking in your backyard, you can still help!).
- Call on the COGCC for a pause in oil and gas permits during the rulemaking process – and for strong, protective rules under the new law. Send a letter to the COGCC here.
- Use and share the Empower Your Community Toolkit – A Guide to Passing Local Moratoriums on Oil and Gas Drilling – which includes a background knowledge on moratoriums, the process for passing one, sample ordinance language from other cities & counties, and tips and tricks from our community partners and more.
- Write a Letter to the Editor or Op-ed! Raise awareness and education on the issue of climate change and oil and gas development in our state.