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Is Hydraulic Fracturing Going to Destroy Important Ecosystems?

More commonly known as fracking, hydraulic fracturing is one of the most widely used technological phenomena used to recover the natural gas and oil found in non-porous (i.e. materials through which liquid or air is unable to pass through) rock formations. Although this process is often government-mandated and highly regulated and claims to have been used in a safe manner for more than six decades, it is notorious around the world for triggering earthquakes and other prominent and high-risk natural disasters, as seen in the 2011 earthquake of the magnitude 2.3 in Lancashire, UK.

The impact on crucial natural ecosystems is staggering. In fact, a study published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) found that hydraulic fracturing has devastating impacts on aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as other ecosystems due to habitat loss and many other factors. As climate change is at the forefront of the global population’s current dilemmas, it is essential to understand the impacts technological processes such as this one may have on entire global ecosystems. So, an important question must be addressed: is hydraulic fracturing going to destroy important ecosystems?

The Process of Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing is a process in which water containing certain chemicals is injected at very high temperatures and pressures into rocks in order to open up their pore spaces and release the natural gas and oil contained within them.

Fundamentally, the creation of the hydraulic well begins with the vertical drilling of a specific area, as natural gas reservoirs are commonly retrieved around two to three kilometres below the surface of the earth. It is important to note that immediately after the subterranean target location is reached, and the drilling is altered to be done in a horizontal manner, which usually tends to expand the depth of the well by more than one kilometer.

Next, after the process of drilling is complete, the task of surface casing takes place. This is when layers of soil and groundwater and freshwater sources near the surface become protected by cement and steel casing, fabricating a barricade around these critical pieces of natural infrastructure for the surrounding ecosystem.

Then, the process of perforating the wellbore occurs, promptly before fracking begins. This is done in order to ensure that the fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process can be pressurized enough so that it begins to leak out of the wellbore and onto the rock so the natural gas can flow onto the surface of the earth. Remarkably, this process causes large and noteworthy cracks that increase in length and width during the actual fracturing process.

Finally, the hydraulic fracturing process begins. This transpires when a fluid composed of sand, additives and liquid water is flown through the newly-made well through the use of a high pressure system that creates increasingly large fractures in the rock. Sand is used to keep the fractures open to enable passages for the newly located natural gas to flow into the wellbore and become extracted.

Image is courtesy of BBC.

What is the Impact of Fracking on the Environment and Its Ecosystems?

Although fracking technology has revolutionized the global energy market and economy, it comes as no surprise that this technology is criticized, for there are numerous concerns regarding the welfare of the global ecosystem, the climate, and therefore, the global food chain. Notably, several severe environmental impacts, such as earthquakes and landslides, are caused by hydraulic fracturing and the widespread flaring of methane and other harmful gasses.

Image is courtesy of Inside Climate News.

The contamination of surface and groundwater, the destruction of wildlife habitats and landscapes, and the increased pollution and anthropogenic debris in these crucial ecosystems resulting from this process are one of the driving forces of the struggles faced by affected animal species. For example, a study conducted in 2014 by ecologist Margaret C. Brittingham, a professor at Penn State University specializing in wildlife resources, demonstrated that natural gas and oil extraction infrastructure can cause the population of the bird species, Greater Sage Grouse, to decline and even disappear in those areas with increased levels of the noise and pollution associated with hydraulic fracking sites.

Image is courtesy of The Revelator.

Unfortunately, the above-mentioned effects of this unconventional method of fossil fuel extraction is simply one-dimensional; there are many more damaging effects of this, including other risks to wildlife. In particular, one example of this is that the land used during this process is emptied for the building of the well by removing large quantities of water out of sources of freshwater such as groundwater, streams, and rivers. These sources of water and their tributaries near these sites may be further contaminated by pollution, harmful chemicals, and even radiation since dust, traffic, light, and noise generally accompany these types of operations. They are key habitats for many species of all classifications of animals (i.e. mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc.), and it is important to note that the extinction of one species due to a lack of resources or adequate living conditions may render the survival of the entire ecosystem questionable. This is because animal species in a typical ecosystem all play a role in a particular food chain, as the cycle of predator and prey in any ecosystem is always interconnected. For example, the extinction of a particular prey risks the extinction of the associated predator, and its predator and so on because the lack of prey is a lack of nutrition and resources, inciting competition for these resources among a particular species. Additionally, not only are these vital ecosystems for many animals of all species (i.e. fleas, birds, fish, caribou, etc.) and the maintenance of biodiversity, but these are also indispensable sources of freshwater for the human populations surrounding these sights.

Article Author: Aneri Buch

Article Editors: Victoria Huang, Stephanie Sahadeo