Fracking - The risks and social & environmental costs

Fracking, the latest ethical challenge in the energy business

This case study looks into the ethical issues of fracking.  It asks the questions and endeavors to find answers; should fracking be allowed or forbidden? Can the energy industry give guarantees to people who may suffer personal, material or environmental damage caused by this controversial exploration technique?
These questions are already answered by several countries, at least for the time being; France and Switzerland said no to fracking, at least now, whilst USA, Poland and China said yes.  But the timing factor must be included; with high oil prices, fracking has become a convenient alternative that may outweigh possible negative environmental impact.

This research is not addressing the fracking process itself, but looks at the human deliberation process and the adherence to published HSE policies of energy companies’ regulations and their stance on ethical and CSR issues performing this technique.  According to the EPA, toxic chemicals in fracturing fluids include substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; methanol; formaldehyde; ethylene glycol; glycol ethers; hydrochloric acid; sodium hydroxide; and diesel fuel, which contains benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene and other chemicals.  These chemicals have known negative health effects such as respiratory, neurological, reproductive side effects, and have an impact on the central nervous system.  Some are known carcinogens. 

Fracking is short for hydro-fracking.  Officially, it is horizontal drilling coupled with multi-stage hydraulic fracturing and is a relatively new process of natural gas extraction.  Here's a step-by-step explanation of this process.
·      A well is drilled vertically to the desired depth, then turns ninety degrees and continues horizontally for several thousand feet into the shale believed to contain the trapped natural gas.
·      A mix of water, sand, and various chemicals is pumped into the well at high pressure in order to create fissures in the shale through which the gas can escape.  As much a 4.5 million gallons of water is needed for one well.
·      Natural gas escapes through the fissures and is drawn back up the well to the surface, where it is processed, refined, and shipped to market.
·      Wastewater (also called "flow back water" or "produced water") returns to the surface after the fracking process is completed. 
(Illustration 4: Fracking Visualization.  Source:

Fracking is fundamentally different to traditional gas extraction methods.
·      Fracking wells go thousands of feet deeper than traditional natural gas wells.
·      Fracking requires between two and five million gallons (8000 -20000m3) of local freshwater per well - up to 100 times more than traditional extraction methods.
·      Fracking utilizes "fracking fluid," a mix of water, sand, and a cocktail of toxic chemicals.  While companies performing fracking have resisted disclosure of the exact contents of the fracking fluid by claiming that this information is proprietary, studies of fracking waste indicate that the fluid contains; formaldehyde, acetic acids, citric acids, and boric acids, amongst hundreds of other chemical contaminants.  The sand preferred is crystalline silica.

Since horizontal drilling became a breakthrough technique to enable better release of trapped shale gas from the earth’s crust, a debate between gas exploration companies and environmentalists started.  People who are in favor claim that although this technique is not risk-free, the economic advantages outweigh the environmental risks, which they claim are controllable.  In the light of this research into the ethical deliberation process to ascertain and determine whether known risks can be called controllable, insignificant or negligible and therefore can be ignored, the fracking process was chosen.

Early studies that stated that there was no risk were revoked in 2011 because real damage to water sources, soil pollution and even earthquakes were proven. Maria Kielmas, published an article in the Oil and Gas monthly magazine Petroleum Review, issued by the Energy Institute in the UK, called ‘Shakin’ all over’, in which she writes about the real time effects of fracking (Kielmas, Maria, 2012).

As an example, Halliburton, one of the largest oil services companies in the world providing the fracking industry with its equipment, was chosen.
They state on their HSE policy:

‘The Company will comply with all applicable Laws and relevant industry standards of practice concerning protection of health and safety of its Employees in the work place and other persons affected by its business activities and the prevention of environmental pollution.  Protection of health, safety, and the prevention of pollution to the environment is a primary goal of the Company and the management of the Company shall take such actions as are reasonable and necessary to achieve such goals and carry out this policy.’

A listing of the various chemicals their fracking fluid consists of was found on the Halliburton webpages (Appendix 13).  One of the chemicals used was named B-6, or Biocide (Appendix 14), that prevents or limits growth of bacteria that can cause formation of hydrogen sulfide and can physically plug flow of oil and gas into the well. 

An important detail of the MSDS on B-6 ‘precautionary environmental measures’ was: prevent from entering sewers, waterways, or low areas. This chemical and others listed can be found on the Halliburton Fracking Fluid Disclosure website, (Appendix 15). It features specific wells in areas and lists fracking chemicals, including their Material Safety Data Sheets that are injected into the deep soil. 
The fracturing of the earth itself cannot be controlled, to touch or contaminate, for example, drinking water sources.  Research and photographs can be read or seen on the internet about possible polluting impact and effects such as volatile gas escaping from drinking water taps in kitchens. Risks and the effects on humans and the environment are taken. An example can be given such as Oil and Gas companies claiming that the drilling takes place far below water aquifers, thus contamination of drinking water with gas is impossible.  In a paper written by the Senior Counsel of the US Geological Survey, he and his colleagues warn about the risks, especially on water supply of fracking in NY State. (Horwitz, Dusty et al, 2012).

Research found out the volume of chemical additives used ranged from 0.5% to 2.0% of the total volume which mainly consists of water and sand. 

In 100 m3 volume of water there will be 1-2 m3 of additives.   A body of scientists, physicians and engineers for Health Energy, specialized in water treatment drew up a joint statement and sent a letter addressed to the Governor of New York on September 15, 2011 (Appendix 18).  In this letter they stated and warned;
‘We urge the State to reconsider its position that existing water filtration systems provide adequate protection against the risk of hydraulic fracturing, should materials from flow-back fluids migrate to lakes, reservoirs, or ground waters used for municipal water supplies.’

Another equally important issue concerning fracking is the fact that the fracking process needs sand, in particular, crystalline silica.  In the USA, this so called frac-sand is mainly found in the rural part of Wisconsin.  In an article by Ellen Cantarow ‘The New Eco-Devastation of Rural America’, frac-sand is mentioned to be a health hazard when people breathe in the dust. (Cantarow, Ellen, 2012).
The Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research published a research paper entitled ‘Effects of Open Cast Mining on Soil Fertility’, which stated that large areas are continually becoming unfertile in spite of efforts to grow vegetation on degraded, mined land.  These are some of the potential future effects that cannot yet be calculated (Ghose, Mrinal, 2004).

The following questions can be answered:

·      Should Fracking be allowed or forbidden? It can be allowed under certain conditions, but social and environmental costs must be included in the pricing.

·      Can the energy industry give guarantees to people who may suffer personal, material or environmental damage caused by this controversial exploration? Yes they can, but to a certain limit. Personal injury due to water contamination or exposure to toxicwaste or possible death can never be compensated. 
Environmental and social risks have to be acceptable.  Future impact and potential social or environmental costs cannot yet be known.

The choice is an ethical one: if people are at risk because the environment is damaged, fracking must not be allowed. Therefore in the Netherlands, Belgium or other densely populated area it is irresponsible to frack and would have to be forbidden.



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