GSA Critical Issue: Hydraulic Fracturing

Posted January 2014; updated March 2015; March 2016

Drilling Rig

Figure 1. Drilling into Marcellus Shale (Google Images)


Hydraulic fracturing is a technological process used in the development of natural gas and oil resources. Used commercially since the 1940s, it has only relatively recently been used to extract gas and oil from shales and other tight reservoirs economically. Development of lower cost, more effective fracturing fluids [1], with horizontal wells drilling and subsurface imaging, created a technological breakthrough that is largely responsible for the increase in domestic production of shale oil, shale gas and other unconventional sources (fig. 2) [2, 3]. The continued use of hydraulic fracturing can be expected, given projections of future shale gas and tight gas contributions to total U.S. gas production (fig. 3), unless banned, replaced by other technologies, or it becomes economically unviable [4, 5]. Hydraulic fracturing has expanded oil and gas development to new areas of the United States (fig. 4) and internationally, including Canada, Australia and Argentina (6, 742, 8, 943). In contrast, some governments have limited the use of hydraulic fracturing. For example, France and Bulgaria have banned its use, several U.S. cities and counties have restricted it, and in June 2015, New York banned high volume hydraulic fracturing [7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 74].

Hydraulic fracturing remains a highly contentious public policy issue because of concerns about the environmental and health effects of its use. What are the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing? What are the health risks from the chemicals injected into the ground? Will it take away water needed for food production and cities? Does it trigger earthquakes? Does expansion of this technology for fossil fuels mean a decreased commitment to renewable energy technology? Are the environmental and health hazards well understood and managed? [14, 67, 68]