Next step is to pump down the well up to seven million gallons of “slick water” — a witch’s brew of water, toxic chemicals and sand. The slick water is under such tremendous pressure, more than nine thousand pounds of pressure per square-inch, that it shatters the shale on either side of the drill casing and allows the gas previously trapped in the shale to rise under its own pressure.
Big problem number one is that not all the gas rises into the well. Some of it appears to “migrate” into underground drinking water, for example, that then passes through household faucets and shower heads.
Hence, flaming faucets and exploding drinking water wells. Hence, uninhabitable homes.
Big problem number two is the gas that does rise through the drill hole to the well head but then escapes. Natural gas that burns (in an electric generating plant, for example) is much greener than the equivalent energy unit of coal. It produces about half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy.
But unburned gas that escapes into the atmosphere is much worse for the environment than coal.
Natural gas – CH4 – in its unburned state is a powerful greenhouse gas, many times stronger than the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal. So even a little leaked to the atmosphere from fracking well heads could cause even more more global warming than coal.
One expert estimates that if the system for extracting natural gas “leaks by even 2.5 percent, it is as bad as coal.”
Big problem number three is the contaminants that remain underground near or in underground drinking water supplies, as well as those the well regurgitates back to the surface.
In December, 2011 the federal Environmental Protection Agency released its first thorough study of the interaction between slick water and drinking water, conducted in a Wyoming town where residents had reported undrinkable water near fracking operations. The EPA reported the presence in the drinking water of some nasty pollutants – glycol ethers, for example – that were “the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracking fluids with ground water.”