What environmental issues are associated with hydraulic fracturing?

The actual practice of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) is only a small part of the overall process of drilling, completing, and producing an oil and gas well.

Environmental issues that are specifically related to hydraulic fracturing include:

  • water availability
  • spills of chemicals at the surface
  • impacts of sand mining for use in the hydraulic fracturing process
  • surface water quality degradation from waste fluid disposal
  • groundwater quality degradation
  • induced seismicity from the injection of waste fluids into deep disposal wells

Any kind of oil and gas drilling can additionally cause:

  • reduced air quality
  • noise
  • night sky light pollution
  • landscape changes such as forest fragmentation
  • disruption to wildlife corridors and habitats

It is important to note that not all of these potential impacts occur at every site and many impacts can be avoided or mitigated with the proper practices.

 

Related Content

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Why have some estimates of undiscovered technically recoverable oil or gas changed so much from previous estimates?

Petroleum geologists have long known that oil and gas resources were present in “tight” or impermeable formations such as shale. But there was no way feasible way to extract that oil and gas, so they were not “technically recoverable” and were not be included in USGS assessment results. Thanks to new technologies, oil and gas can now be extracted...

Who is responsible for monitoring the issues associated with hydraulic fracturing and protecting our environment?

Individual states regulate many aspects of oil and gas exploration and production. Federal land managers, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have some oversight of oil and gas activities on the lands they manage. This includes conducting environmental impact...

When did hydraulic fracturing become such a popular approach to oil and gas production?

Hydraulic fracturing in vertical wells has been used for over fifty years to improve the flow of oil and gas from conventional reservoirs. However, the current practice of horizontal drilling coupled with multiple applications of hydraulic fracturing in a single well was pioneered in the late 1980s and has continued to evolve. Since the final...

What is hydraulic fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing, informally referred to as “fracking,” is an oil and gas well development process that typically involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure into a bedrock formation via the well. This process is intended to create new fractures in the rock as well as increase the size, extent, and connectivity of...

What is in the fluid injected into the ground during hydraulic fracturing?

In general, hydraulic fracturing fluid is composed of water, proppant (typically sand), and chemicals. A public website known as FracFocus has been established by industry that lists specific materials used in many, but not all, hydraulically fractured wells. Individual companies select a few chemicals to be used from hundreds that are available...

What is the USGS role related to hydraulic fracturing?

The USGS is a science research agency with no regulatory, land management, or enforcement powers. This includes: research and assessments on the location, quantity, and quality of unconventional oil and gas resources whose production could involve hydraulic fracturing. Resource assessments estimate the quantity of oil and gas that is yet to be...

How much water does the typical hydraulically fractured well require?

There isn’t really a “typical” fractured well because the amount of water used depends on the rock formation, the operator, whether the well is vertical or horizontal, and the number of portions (or stages) of the well that are fractured. In addition, some water is recycled from fluids produced by the well, so the net consumption might be smaller...

How is hydraulic fracturing related to earthquakes and tremors?

Reports of hydraulic fracturing causing felt earthquakes are extremely rare. However, wastewater produced by wells that were hydraulic fractured can cause “induced” earthquakes when it is injected into deep wastewater wells. Wastewater disposal wells operate for longer durations and inject much more fluid than the hydraulic fracturing operations...

How does hydraulic fracturing affect the surface or landscape of an area?

An area undergoing production of oil or gas using hydraulic fracturing technology shares many features with areas where conventional oil or gas is being developed, including: Roads Pipelines Compressor stations Processing facilities. Features that are unique to areas in which hydraulic fracturing is used include: Fewer but larger drilling pads,...

How does hydraulic fracturing differ from traditional petroleum development methods?

In a conventional oil or gas field, where the oil or gas is in relatively porous and permeable rock (i.e. the pores are connected), the oil or gas can usually flow naturally from the reservoir rock to the wellbore. Nonetheless, a variety of techniques are often used to improve the flow of oil or gas, including hydraulic fracturing. Rock formations...

Can hydraulic fracturing impact the quality of groundwater or surface water?

Conducted properly, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has little possibility of contaminating water supplies. Properly constructed wells prevent drilling fluids, hydraulic fracturing fluids, deep saline formation waters, or oil and gas from entering aquifers. Carefully constructed and operated well sites have the ability to contain potential...

How and where do drillers dispose of waste hydraulic fracturing fluid?

Most of the water and additives used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) remain deep underground in the geologic formation from which the oil or gas is being extracted. But some of the fluid, mixed with water or brine from the formation, returns through the well to the surface and is referred to as “produced water”. After a well is brought on-...
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Date published: May 31, 2017

Unconventional Oil and Gas Production Not Currently Affecting Drinking Water Quality

Decades or longer may be needed to fully assess the effects of unconventional oil and gas production on the quality of groundwater used for drinking water in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas

Date published: May 9, 2016

Evidence of Unconventional Oil and Gas Wastewater Found in Surface Waters near Underground Injection Site

These are the first published studies to demonstrate water-quality impacts to a surface stream due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site.

Date published: June 30, 2015

Water Used for Hydraulic Fracturing Varies Widely Across United States

The amount of water required to hydraulically fracture oil and gas wells varies widely across the country, according to the first national-scale analysis and map of hydraulic fracturing water usage detailed in a new USGS study accepted for publication in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Date published: May 11, 2015

The Chemistry of Waters that Follow from Fracking: A Case Study

In a study of 13 hydraulically fractured shale gas wells in north-central Pennsylvania, USGS researchers found that the microbiology and organic chemistry of the produced waters varied widely from well to well.

Date published: March 3, 2015

What Happens to the Water? Assessing Water Quality in Areas with Hydraulically Fractured Oil and Gas Wells

More data and research are necessary to best understand the potential risks to water quality associated with unconventional oil and gas development in the United States, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey study.

Attribution: Energy and Minerals
Date published: February 19, 2015

Coping with Earthquakes Induced by Fluid Injection

MENLO PARK, Calif.— A paper published today in Science provides a case for increasing transparency and data collection to enable strategies for mitigating the effects of human-induced earthquakes caused by wastewater injection associated with oil and gas production in the United States.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Date published: January 27, 2015

Historical Hydraulic Fracturing Trends and Data Unveiled in New USGS Publications

Two new U.S. Geological Survey publications that highlight historical hydraulic fracturing trends and data from 1947 to 2010 are now available.

Date published: August 28, 2013

Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids Likely Harmed Threatened Kentucky Fish Species

Hydraulic fracturing fluids are believed to be the cause of the widespread death or distress of aquatic species in Kentucky's Acorn Fork, after spilling from nearby natural gas well sites. These findings are the result of a joint study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Filter Total Items: 7
Image: Hydraulic Fracturing Operation Underway
March 14, 2016

Hydraulic Fracturing Operation Underway

A hydraulic fracturing operation is underway at this drilling pad in the Marcellus Shale gas play of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Image: Withdrawing Water for Hydraulic Fracturing
March 14, 2016

Withdrawing Water for Hydraulic Fracturing

Equipment set up to pump water from a lake to an impoundment for hydraulic fracturing in the Fayetteville Shale of Arkansas.

Image: Hydraulic Fracturing Well Heads
March 14, 2016

Hydraulic Fracturing Well Heads

Well heads hooked up in preparation for a hydraulic fracturing operation at a drill pad in the Fayetteville Shale gas play of Arkansas.

Image: Hydraulic Fracturing Drill Site
March 14, 2016

Hydraulic Fracturing Drill Site

A typical drill pad in the Marcellus Shale gas play of southwestern Pennsylvania.

USGS scientist collecting water samples on a wastewater disposal facility
June 18, 2014

Scientist Collecting Water Samples at a Wastewater Disposal Facility

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist collecting water samples on a wastewater disposal facility in West Virginia to assess potential environmental impacts due to activities at the site. Shifts in the overall microbial community structure were present in stream sediments

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video thumbnail: Science or Soundbite? Shale Gas, Hydraulic Fracturing, and Induced Earthquakes
April 3, 2012

Science or Soundbite? Shale Gas, Hydraulic Fracturing, and Induced Earthquakes

Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting wells with water, sand, and chemicals at very high pressure. This process creates fractures in deeply buried rocks to allow for the extraction of oil and natural gas as well as geothermal energy. USGS scientists discuss the opportunities and impact associated with hydraulic fracturing. Doug Duncan, associate coordinator for

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