Fracking — the pros and cons

What’s really going on beneath our feet when we use fracking to extract natural gas from deep underground?

The Author

Scott A. Elias, PhDDr. Scott A. Elias is Professor of Quaternary Science in the Department of Geography of Royal Holloway, University of London, specializing in environmental biology. His chief research focus concerns the reconstruction of past environmental change and the response of animals and plants to those changes during the last million years.

Reference Modules on ScienceDirect

Recently, he became Editor-in-Chief of the upcoming Elsevier Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, which will contain more than 3,800 peer-reviewed articles from Elsevier reference works, many on issues related to the state of the planet's health. The module will be hosted on ScienceDirect, a scientific database containing more than 11 million full-text journal articles and book chapters. [divider]

Fracking: What is it?

Fracking for shale gas has become big business, transforming the US energy landscape. But is it safe?This is a fracking well in the western United States. (Brooks, M, "Frack on or frack off? Can shale gas really save the planet," New Scientist, August 10, 2013)

Shale gas is methane trapped in tiny pockets in shale rock formations. In order to extract the gas, engineers drill shafts down into the shale, most often with many radiating horizontal shafts that feed into the vertical shaft. Engineers drill vertical shafts down to great depths, then they drill radiating horizontal shafts that feed it. Then they force hydraulic fluids into the rock to fracture the shale and open the pockets of gas, releasing it to flow to the surface.

The term "fracking" is short for "hydraulic fracturing." Over the past 10 to 15 years, the number of fracking wells has expanded rapidly in the US, liberating increasing amounts of methane.

What are the benefits?

So much natural gas has been extracted through fracking in recent years that US carbon emissions are actually falling. This is partly due to the economic recession since 2008, but the US Energy Information Administration reckons that just less than half of the fall in emissions is due to the replacement of coal burning with shale gas for electrical energy production. It would seem that shale gas, which occurs in shale deposits around the world, is in a perfect position to replace coal in power stations. Already more than a third of natural gas burned in the US is coming from fracking wells, and shale gas is now cheaper than coal in the US.President Obama recently praised the US natural gas boom in a speech on climate change, crediting it with delivering cleaner energy. Many have described fracking as the bridge between the carbon-based energy systems of the past and a cleaner, greener future.

What are the risks?

In 2013, an estimated 250 billion cubic meters of natural gas will be brought to the surface by fracking in the US. ( Brooks, 2013)

If fracking was just a new-fangled way of tapping natural gas sources, it would be welcomed by most people as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to oil and coal. The problems lie in the method of extraction.In order to get the gas out, a witch's brew of toxic chemicals has to be pumped into the shale at high pressure. More specifically, this is a mixture of water, sand, lubricants, poisons to keep bacteria and other microorganisms from clogging the pipes, and hydrochloric acid to dissolve the excess cement in the pipes (Brooks, 2013). If these fluids stayed far underground, they might not damage the human environment. The problem is that they find their way back to the surface through accidents at well heads, well blowouts, backflow of fluids to the surface, and leaks throughout the system. Altogether, more than 650 products containing chemicals with potential cancer-causing properties have been used in fracking (Balaba and Smart, 2012).

One would think that a country such as the US would have laws to protect the environment from toxic pollutants like these, but unfortunately the current laws are full of loopholes when it comes to fracking. For instance, an exception to the Safe Drinking Water Act is made for toxic chemicals injected into wells during hydraulic fracturing. An exception to the Clean Water Act permits temporarily stored waste water from fracking facilities to go untreated.

Other exemptions to US environmental safety regulations mean that fracking well operators are not obliged to report annual releases of toxic chemicals from their wells (Centner, 2013).Finally, the government does not require well operators to disclose the chemical contents of the fluids they use in the fracking process. These are considered trade secrets. It seems ironic that these companies do not have to disclose the contents of their fracking chemicals, when the manufacturers of household cleaning products must disclose every detail of their contents (Lauver, 2012).

Fracking wells have been developed across the country, with highest density in Texas, Wyoming, California and Pennsylvania. (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency, 2012)The Obama administration is proposing a new set of fracking rules, and their initial proposal has received an enormous number of comments from the public (more than 175,000 responses). The new set of rules only cover fracking on public lands, but the administration hopes that these rules will be adopted by individual states for use on private lands as well.

The rules set standards of well integrity and management of polluted water that flows back to the surface. Groundwater pollution is another serious concern, but results of an EPA study on that threat are not expected before 2016. In the meantime, thousands of new fracking wells are springing up all over the country.

Related story

Read Dr. Elias's previous Elsevier Connect article: "Climate change's silver lining"[divider]


Balaba, RS, Smart, RB, "Total arsenic and selenium analysis in Marcellus shale, high-salinity water, and hydrofracture flowback wastewater,"

Chemosphere89, 2012.

Brooks, M, "Frack on or frack off? can shale gas really save the planet," New Scientist, August 10, 2013.

Centner,  TJ, "Oversight of shale gas production in the United States and the disclosure of toxic substances," Resources Policy 38, 2013.

Lauver, LS, "Environmental health advocacy: an overview of natural gas drilling in northeast Pennsylvania and implications for pediatric nursing," Journal of Pediatric Nursing 27, 2012.

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12 Archived Comments

Happy Eastender October 7, 2013 at 8:19 pm

With the case of fracking, after reading about all the risks and benefits, it seems that it is definitely NOT worth the risks. The dollar cannot supersede the preservation of the earth's natural resources...such as water. We all need to educate ourselves before our leaders make all the choices for us.

Scott Elias October 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

I'm sure that a lot of people would agree with you. I won't be happy with fracking until the people doing it are a lot more open about what they're doing and how they're doing it, and until they take far greater care to avoid polluting ground water

Scott Elias October 11, 2013 at 8:59 am

I'm sure that a lot of people would agree with you. I won't be happy with fracking until the people doing it are a lot more open about what they're doing and how they're doing it, and until they take far greater care to avoid polluting ground water

stephen fodor October 16, 2013 at 5:31 pm

HHMM...serious issues are raised about long term safety and pollution factors that may counterbalance the surge to rush to acquire this monumental wealth and energy based prosperity for many years ahead, especially with the understandable worries about the bad politics of oil and gas producing countries, strangling / blackmailing the rest of the civilised world. .

To maximise a secure self sourced energy dependancy for many years ahead is something we cannot afford to deny ourselves

SURELY, with all the technology available now the safety issues should be addressed and overcome as a matter of real urgency....and THEN the rush for a better energy future can go ahead without any worries or hesitation!

Mark October 22, 2013 at 11:22 am

I have been on the fence on the fracking issue. I saw an energy round table on C span yesterday that made up my mind. I made a pro/con list to help me decide:


clean burning fuel (methane)

less green house effect

less pollution as fuel


domestic extraction creates new industry

energy independence

breaks the grip of OPEC on our economy

lessens the incentive for military action in middle east

gives us competitive edge over China

Spearheads new fuel technologys

will spawn new technology in the auto industry

will trigger competition at fuel stations (lower prices)

Creates a buffer period that will allow transition to even cleaner energy

as demand increases globally,oil dependent nations will suffer

shale gas will break that stranglehold on America


Extraction wastes huge amounts of water

Process will inevitably result in toxic leaks at wells due to accidents

residents living near wells may be subject to ground water fouling


I think it's a no brainer. Energy is the key to everything. Frack!!! -but let's get better environmental regulation on it.

Johno December 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

So Mark, for you it's a No-Brainer, to get all the benefits you listed but have yourself, your family, neighbours and community suffer from massively increased exposure to Cancer causing Toxins....

Even with environmental regulation there will still be leaks, backflows, blowouts and accidents. And who knows what it's doing to the structural integrity of the very Earth Crust we rely on. Have you ever considered alternate forms of energy such as Solar, wind or wave power?

No brainer is a good adjective as it sums up exactly the mentality of your comment.

Jason Wooten October 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm

FRACK NO!!! The clean, green method sounds great, although ruining the ground water for OUR great-grandkids is just plain & simply UNEXCEPTABLE!!!

devin piper November 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm

i really bbelieve this helped me because im doing a report and thank you.

Peterk December 15, 2013 at 11:17 pm

wow! talk about a one-sided biased article ' a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals " and here i guess i've been wrong all these years to believe that scientist were objective in the assessments.

'Typical Chemical Additives Used in Frac Water"

I would hope that Elsevier would be more objective and the title is totally misleading as it was all cons and very little pro

CHARLES KING January 7, 2014 at 4:49 pm

This is the most sensible, rational statement found in a morning of searching a variety of "articles " on fracking.

luna March 19, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Yeah, cuz there's nothing with having antifreeze in your drinking water

Mark March 21, 2014 at 6:46 pm

I agree. There seems to be some bias against fracking from the author.

Why not just simply research the chemicals in the "witches brew" and include in what proportion they are used with the water?? This could have been a much better article.

It was nice that your links help to explain that.

You can never satisfy most of the environmentalists who tend to lean to the far left politically. Fracking significantly reduces carbon emissions which contribute to pollution. And, it would seem, this would allay their concerns over "global warming" which, I think is a ludicrous concern for US citizens to be worried about. Any regulation by our government in favor to reduce emissions and gasses that contribute to global warming would be like pissing in the wind. This is a GLOBAL issue. And, unless you have the new players in the world economy like, China, India, and Russia on board with these regulations, anything we do would be useless!! And, of course, Obama has proven to us be completely incompetent in regards

to foreign policy. Try getting these countries to slow down their economic juggernaut to appease a few "tree-humpers" in the US!! This is a pragmatic world- which to environmentalists is an "incomvenient truth". I think fracking and the energy boom in the Dakota's has been a real shot in the arm to US economy as opposed to the "minimum-wage economy" that has been prevalent in this Presidential administration. I say continue to frack. There just needs to be restrictions in relation to lands where ground water sources are present.

Lucas Judd January 9, 2014 at 4:13 am

I live about 2 hours away from a fracking plant up near Williamsport, Pa and I remember going there as a kid to visit my uncle's farm. The amount of fun I would have there was never ending, and reading over this type of stuff disheartens me because I think about him and how hard it must be to continue running his farms even though he knows about the harsh chems in his water supply. I want to know more about this because I want to help find some way to make this a cleaner and more reliable way to get gas. I wouldn't do it for the environmentalist or the local hippies thinking their doing something. No I want to help the people up there because someone needs to.

Scott Elias (author) January 14, 2014 at 3:29 pm

The web site you cited is sponsored by the fracking industry, so not exactly an unbiased source! There are toxic chemicals involved in this process, and one of the main problems is that the drilling companies are unwilling to reveal what they're using.

Kevin Keras March 9, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Sponsored? That's seems appropriate language for an activist but a bit harsh it you wish you be considered as an unbiased author...can you please provide citations of just who the "fracking industry" is and exactly how they sponsor this particular website?

Barry Mcluvin March 13, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Seems legit

Deztenie Penvenne April 11, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Wow. Why do people think this is a good idea? Can't they see we are hurting our world beyond repair already? Can't we give up the fossil fuels and ride our bikes or walk places instead? This may seem old fashion but it may be the only way to save our planet from dying in a few hundred years. Think about your children and siblings! GIVE UP THE GAS AND SAVE MOTHER NATURE!!!!!!

Bob Bo April 14, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Facking also causes earthquakes and breaks sewage lines containing poop