The debate over fracking explained

By Kaye Foley

The debate over fracking has increased over the past few years and, not surprisingly, has made its way onto the campaign trail — especially for the Democrats, as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaign in states where fracking has stirred controversy.

Hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — is a key part of the process of getting natural gas and oil from shale and other rock layers deep underground.

A well, lined with a steel casing, is drilled down into the ground — often more than 5,000 feet — until it reaches the shale or rock layers. Once there, the well is turned and drilled in horizontally for about a mile or more.

A perforating gun with explosive charges is sent down. When it gets to the horizontal section, it blows small holes in the steel casing. Then comes the fracking — a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals is blasted through the well. The force of the mixture creates cracks, or fissures, in the shale.

A portion of the water mixture, now wastewater, comes back up the well so it can be disposed of, treated or recycled. The sand holds the fissures in the shale open while the natural gas and oil flow up to the surface, where they’re collected and transported to utilities and refineries.

Fracking has been a big factor in the recent U.S. domestic oil and gas production boom. The energy industry says fracking means more jobs and lower energy costs, decreases dependence on foreign imports and reduces the use of coal, which leaves a pretty big carbon footprint.

But activists, sometimes called “fractivists,” argue that the environment and people are at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals that could leak from wells and pollute drinking water and air. And a U.S. Geological Survey linked the pressure from some “injection wells” — used to dispose wastewater — to an increase in earthquakes in central and eastern states.

In 2015, the EPA released a study saying that fracking caused problems, but there was no evidence of a “widespread, systemic” impact on drinking water. However, that conclusion was met with some skepticism by the EPA’s science advisory board.

While fracking may be a national conversation, for the most part, current regulation of land and water impacts is largely left up to the states. So whether you’re down with fracking or think it should go, the next time you hear it mentioned, at least after watching this video you can say, “Now I get it.”