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What Is “Fraking” And Why Is It Such A Big Deal?

Natural gas, drilling, and fraking. Do you know what fraking is?

I follow debates about energy and fossil fuels, and keep hearing about something called “fracking.”

What Is Fracking?

Fracking refers to a relatively new method of drilling for and harvesting natural gas. The technical term is hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process that involves pumping a mix of sand, water, and chemicals into layers of rock and shale. The purpose is to create cracks, or fractures, in the rock that allow natural gas trapped beneath to escape to the surface.

What Is So Controversial?

The controversy has to do with the possibility of contaminating surface or ground water.

When natural gas seeps to the surface, chemically contaminated water can come with it and mix with ground or surface water. Some people living near fracking sites have reported tap water tainted by grease and floating debris. And there’s anecdotal evidence of people getting sick from drinking water contaminated by fracking pollutants.

The natural gas industry denies that fracking pollutes tap water. It claims that, when done properly, the process is clean and a boon to the U.S. domestic energy economy.

So Where Does The Truth Lie?

As with any industrial process, there are benefits and risks to fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency intends to find out more about the risks in a study beginning in 2011.

What’s certain is that in the near future natural gas is going to become a much bigger part of the American energy mix. And because much of the easily accessible natural gas has been tapped, fracking is probably going to play a larger role, too.

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