Distance: a Critical Aspect for Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing

by Alex Frumkin

Hydraulic fracturing is the process used to access than one-half o the U.S.’ natural gas supply and is rapidly changing the energy supplies in the United States. The popularity of unconventional drilling is increasing over the past decade, and scientists are continuing to analyze the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. While public concerns are encouraging scientists to continue to evaluate the possible adverse effects related to hydraulic fracturing, Ming et al. (2014) focus on understanding the current research of these environmental impacts within a spatial content. The authors set out to better understand what the environmental impacts related to how close an area or home is to an active fracking well. They find that there are five key areas that are more likely to be impacted due to proximity to a gas well. These five areas are that the closer drinking and groundwater are to a fracking site the more likely the water is to be contaminated, that residents living nearest to fracking wells will experience higher human health risks, high density gas emissions are detected, small earthquakes are more frequent and common near a fracking well, and that there are changes to the landscape characteristics. These assessments are imperative for better understanding the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on both the environment and on human’s health.

Ming et al. (2014) noticed that recent studies on hydraulic fracturing have failed to feature any type of rigorous spatial analysis, however some have suggested that spatial relationships between fracking sites and impacts exist. The spatial analysis demonstrated that residents living within 0.8 km from gas wells are at higher risks of health effects than people living beyond this distance, and that methane concentrations in drinking waters within 1 km can be at explosion levels. In addition to the elevated methane concentrations, ethane concentrations were found to be highly elevated in drinking water of homes that were within 1 km of shale gas fracking sites. Howarth Et al. (2011) demonstrated that up to 8% of life time shale gas production migrates into the atmosphere. In addition, when studying the locations chosen for fracking wells it was observed that fracking wells are more likely to be placed at higher elevations, changing the landscape characteristics of that location and the ecosystems present.

There have been a few studies, including this one, that have highlighted the fact that a closer a site is to a hydraulic fracturing well the greater the chance of adverse impacts on that site due to the fracking activity. In particular, the adverse effects on human health that need to continue to be studied and understood. It is necessary to begin to pay closer attention to the relationship between distance and these environmental impacts to create a more comprehensive response to these adverse effects associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Meng, Quinmin. Ashby, Steve. 2014. Distance: A critical aspect for environmental impact assessment of hydraulic fracking. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2014.07.004. migration

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