For years, fracking has been a hot topic of debate in the United States.
The process works by drilling deep below the earth’s surface and extracting gas by injecting a high-pressure water mixture that is directed at rock.
When done properly, fracking is roughly 50% more environmentally friendly than using traditional coal, but if the operation is not “tight,” some of the natural gas, such as methane, can leak out into the environment and cause harm.
Supporters think fracking is good for the economy as it secures cleaner-burning energy for the United State to use, while opponents believe the environmental questions outweigh economic benefits.
This is all to say that research surrounding the environmental impacts of fracking is not yet fully understood, which is why researchers gathered in Broomfield, Colorado to study the process more.
Armed with state-of-the-art equipment, researchers from the University of Colorado and University of Maryland spent a week flying above fracking sites in Weld County, Colorado to gather data surrounding possible methane leaks around fracking sites.
Because methane can come from a multitude of sources such as land use, landfills, and animals, the equipment on board was looking for the chemical compound ethane, a short-lived gas that is only emitted with methane when that methane comes from fracking.
“Being able to delineate this in real-time with fast measurements in the order of one second is really important,” said Alan Fried, a researcher at the University of Colorado. “It’s important to our immediate health. I know there’s major concerns about what we’re breathing from fracking operations and they’re still trying to study some of the long-term effects of some of the emissions, but even if you’re relatively healthy going out and exercising on a high-pollution day, where there are a lot of precursors that produce ozone, could be detrimental.”
The data the teams collect will be sent to local health departments to determine how much methane is possibly leaked from fracking sites. The health departments will then use that information to assess whether stronger measures surrounding fracking legislation are needed to improve air quality.
“We think of using natural gas as a bridge fuel. What that means is it’s a cleaner-burning fossil fuel so we can move away from dirtier fuels, like coal for instance, but for that to have a positive impact on our climate, it has to be very tight, so there can’t be a lot of methane leaking out of oil and gas operations,” said Abigail Koss, an application scientist who is helping with the research.
Most fracking companies defend the safety of the practice, saying it is cleaner than coal and does not contaminate drinking water as some claim.