The Environmental Toll of Fracking & How to Minimize It

Until 2005, the United States struggled with crude oil and natural gas production, relying on imports to meet its energy needs. Then fracking was introduced - and it completely changed the game. This water-heavy extraction technique unlocked unconventional hydrocarbon reserves, triggering a boom in shale gas production while lowering energy costs. But when we look at the bigger picture, it isn’t all rosy.

It turns out, fracking has a big impact on the environment.

From inducing seismicity to degrading freshwater quality, fracking comes with an environmental footprint that's too large to ignore. Today, we’re talking about this controversial oil and gas recovery method and Undesert’s role in minimizing its impact on the planet.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Also known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a process designed to increase oil and gas recovery from deep rock formations or shale. It involves injecting huge volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals at an extremely high pressure. The pressure cracks open hard rock wells and increases the flow of trapped oil and gas, making extraction easier. 

Fracking’s Impact on the Environment

In the United States, the adoption of fracking has grown natural gas production by a staggering 86% over 2005 levels. However, the method draws criticism for exacting a heavy toll on the environment and human health. 

Rise in Induced Earthquakes

There’s been a surge in earthquakes in the Delaware Basin in Texas since 2009. A study done by the Seismological Society of America linked the increased seismicity to the disposal of wastewater and brine (saltwater) generated during oil and gas operations. Also known as produced water, these waste fluids are typically injected back into deep disposal wells, causing a shift in subsurface tectonic plates. The result? A dramatic rise in human-induced quakes in regions where natural earthquakes were previously rare.

Depletion of Freshwater Reserves

According to the USGS, a fracked well can consume anything from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water, most of which is sourced from groundwater with no recycling systems in place. With most of these wells located in water-starved and drought-prone areas, fracking is worsening the water crisis in some of the driest places in America.

Water Contamination

Fracking doesn’t just reduce precious freshwater reserves, it also pollutes them. The entire process, from the injection of fracking fluids to the disposal of produced water, has the potential to degrade water quality. Up to 40% of fracking fluids come back up from the well with radioactivity due to the water-soluble nature of sub-surface radium. 

Poor wastewater disposal practices further increase the risk of pollution. Any leak, spill, or blowout can cause fracking chemicals, toxic metals, and organic contaminants to make their way into groundwater and surface water and harm human health.

Air Pollution

Hydraulic fracturing is known to release significant amounts of pollutants, including benzene, xylene, toluene, silica dust, and volatile organic compounds into the air. Exposure to these contaminants can trigger a range of respiratory, neurological, and cardiovascular disorders, as well as cancer. Moreover, a 2019 study linked fracking to a global surge in atmospheric methane—a potent climate change driver.

Disruption of Wildlife 

In Wyoming, the development of the Pinedale Anticline Gas field has disrupted migratory routes for mule deer, negatively impacting their population. This isn’t an isolated incident. By contaminating waterways, fragmenting forestlands, and industrializing the rural landscape, fracking is wrecking habitats and endangering wildlife species across North America.

Undesert’s Role in Minimizing Fracking’s Impact on the Environment

North America and parts of the world that have reaped the benefits of fracking are finally waking up to its side effects. Improving wastewater management is an important starting point towards making the technique less damaging to the planet—that’s where we come in. 

Undesert’s solar-powered Salty Wastewater Purification (SWAP) technology is designed to turn heavily contaminated wastewater into ultra-clean water and dry salt. In New Mexico, a state that generates 60 billion gallons of procured water annually, our SWAP desalinated wastewater is transforming desertified lands into thriving forests. 

Channeling purified produced water into regreening projects instead of industrial operations is a conscious choice that allows us to go beyond desalination—to reverse desertification and help local communities.

Do you want to be involved in purifying the world’s most contaminated water? Connect with us here.

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