What the Frack? How Does Fracking Work and Why is it an Environmental Justice Issue?

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as hydrofracturing, hydrofracking, or simply fracking, is a well-stimulation process used by fuel companies to increase the oil and/or natural gas flow to wells from petroleum-bearing rock formations. It is done in geologic layers with low permeability such as tight sandstone, shale, and certain coal beds where oil and natural gas are naturally found. Fracking is also used with tight subsurface formations and low permeability sediments to increase the vapor extraction of the soil in order to remedy sites that have already been fracked.

Fracking begins when a long vertical or angled well is drilled down a mile or more into the earth’s surface. As the well reaches the rock formations where the desired resources lie, drilling gradually turns horizontal and extends several hundred feet, oftentimes as far as thousands of feet. Steel pipes, called casings, are then inserted into the well and the space between the rock or substrate and casing is filled with cement. Small holes are made in the casing or the casing is inserted pre-perforated. After that, slick water, a special type of fracturing liquid that is a combination of water, sand, and various chemicals to make it less viscous, is pumped through the well at a high enough pressure to create new fractures in the rock or substrate and expand existing fractures. Once the material is sufficiently fractured, the oil or gas flows to the surface via the well where it is eventually collected. Large amounts of wastewater also surface and are stored in pits, tanks, underground storage containers, or wells.

The equipment used in fracking is fairly large and complex including, but not limited to, high-pressure, high-volume pumps; blenders for the fluids; and storage tanks for all of the materials required and produced. The slick water is made up of as much as 97 percent water; as well as small solid particles, called proppants, used to keep the fractures open once the pressure subsides. Proppants often consist of sand with upwards of 1,000 chemical additives.


As can be assumed, there are regulations as well as disclosures that are required for the use of these chemicals. However, many of these chemicals are considered “trade secrets” and most disclosures contain exclusions for “confidential business information,” a loophole created to prevent the identities of these chemicals from being exposed. It is known, though, that different chemicals are used for different things. Acids are used to make fossil fuels flow more easily by dissolving minerals, biocides are used to eliminate bacteria, proppants are carried into fractures with the help of gelling agents, and steel parts of wells are protected using corrosion inhibitors. Some of the common ingredients of these chemicals include methanol, ethylene glycol, and propargyl alcohol. In formulas used between 2005 and 2013, the EPA identified 1,084 different chemicals used.

Many of these known chemicals and their ingredients are considered hazardous to human health, but unfortunately, it is unknown what the exact health implications are. This is highly problematic since only between 25-75 percent of fracking fluid is recovered for disposal. The remaining fluid, thousands of gallons of wastewater, flows into nearby aquifers via the fractures and natural faults. These aquifers are often used as water supplies for nearby areas, including drinking water. Groundwater wells for 68 homes overlaying the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania — one of the most heavily fracked areas in the world until just a decade ago — were analyzed for increased salts, metals, and radioactivity, of which none were found. However, they were also tested for methane concentrations, which were 17 times higher, as well as ethane concentrations which were significantly higher as well. CH4 isotopic signatures that were consistent with fossil fuel sources were also detected.

AP Photo / Keith Srakocic

Over 17.6 million people in America live within a mile or less of an oil or gas well that has been fracked at some point. It has been found that children who live near these wells are two to three times more likely to develop childhood leukemia than children who live farther away. Similarly, elderly people living near wells have a higher risk of premature death than those who do not live in similar proximity. Other health effects that have been observed include liver damage; eye, nose, and throat irritation; migraines; general malaise; premature birth, low birth weight, and birth defects in pregnant women living near wells. There have also been several reports of people living near wells that are able to light their tap water on fire by igniting a flame as it comes out of the faucet.

Fracking not only contaminates water but also affects the environment in other ways.ell. One of the biggest ramifications of fracking is the sheer amount of water needed for the process.

An average well requires anywhere between 1.5 million and 9.7 million gallons of water; however, some require more – up to 16 million gallons. The water used for this is usually freshwater taken from groundwater and surface water supplies. This leads to serious water supply depletion, including the amount of potable water available.

The wastewater after fracking a well is much too contaminated to be returned to its original source without extensive treatment. Thus, it is removed from the water cycle as a whole, so potable or not, millions of gallons of water are lost. This, in turn, increases the effects of droughts and increasingly hotter conditions.

Fracking is considered to be an important industry because of its local and economic benefits. Because fracking for natural gas in America is done within the country’s borders, there is less worry or uncertainty surrounding import costs or dependency on other countries. Moreover, much of fracking’s defense comes from the fact that it provides jobs to people and raises the economy with internal selling and purchasing. It has been observed that on average, communities where fracking took place produced an additional $400 million of oil and natural gas, as well as an increased income by 33%-6.1%, increased employment by 3.7%-5.5%, increased salaries by 5.4%-11%, and decreased housing prices by 5.7%.

But the process of hydraulic fracturing often takes place in low-income and minority neighborhoods, leading to a range of environmental and health disparities. These communities suffer from increased air and water pollution, noise, and other hazards associated with fracking operations. Additionally, the extraction of natural gas through fracking contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates climate change, which disproportionately affects vulnerable populations worldwide. Consequently, fracking not only poses immediate health and environmental risks but also perpetuates social and economic inequalities, highlighting its status as a pressing environmental justice concern.

RCC Fellow – Caroline Bower – Drexel University

Caroline Bower is a senior at Drexel University studying Environmental Studies and Sustainability with a concentration in Environmental Policy, as well as a minor in Philosophy. She is currently an undergraduate research assistant with one of her professors, helping to research and compile data on storm surge barriers and their ecological impact. She previously interned with EA Engineering where she worked closely with environmental regulation and monitoring. Caroline is passionate about environmental justice, wetland conservation, and biodiversity preservation.