What You Need to Know About Fracking

A natural gas drill at a hydraulic fracturing site

“Drill, Baby, Drill!” That was the popular 2008 slogan of the McCain-Palin campaign. Five years later, many Americans still aren’t aware of the implications of drilling, or “fracking,” as it’s called in the oil industry.

Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking,” is the process of pumping a mixture of water and other chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture rocks and release the oil or natural gas that is trapped inside. Fracking is occurring all over the U.S., with a number of new sites being considered for drilling in the near future. Many advocates for fracking argue that domestic drilling allows the U.S. to use its natural resources and alleviates foreign oil and coal dependency. Those against fracking warn of the threat it poses to the environment, including polluting air and drinking water with toxic chemicals, triggering earthquakes, threatening the global climate and destroying ecosystems. 

This week, the University of Texas released a peer-reviewed study finding that leaks due to fracking during oil well completions may cause fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated, a conclusion that made many in the petroleum industry very happy. But the study also showed that leaks that take place elsewhere in the fracking process that are not regulated by the EPA were twice what the E.P.A. had estimated. Despite these ongoing debates, fracking is legal in this country, with few regulations and little transparency.

In my hometown of Los Angeles, the 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field sits on an earthquake fault, is surrounded by nearly 300,000 homes, and is the largest urban oil field in the country. One need only drive by to see the rigs drilling on a daily basis. Residents in the area have complained of sudden cracks and shifts in the very foundations of their homes. The field is visible from the elementary school I attended -- and where my mother still teaches—where, recently, a large sinkhole has mysteriously appeared in the middle of the school’s playground. Teachers were tested this summer for chemicals in their bodies, and received notification that benzene, a carcinogen linked to cancer and commonly used as a gasoline additive, had been found at elevated levels in their bodies -- and still, the drilling continues.

Last year, Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) introduced Bill 1323, which called for a moratorium on fracking statewide, mandating that California’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agencies complete a study of its safety by January 2016. The bill would have allowed fracking to resume if its safety could be demonstrated and regulations were put in place to keep it safe and ensure monitoring. Mitchell says that the issue was brought literally to her doorstep by a group of concerned residents that lived in proximity to the Inglewood Oil Field.

Though community members, local officials, stakeholders, and environmentalists met to discuss solutions, the bill was eventually rejected. “Those who didn’t support my bill quoted oil industry advocates who claimed no harm from fracking in California had been proven, that it would bring jobs and cleaner, cheaper fossil fuel and would move America toward energy independence from the Middle East,” said Mitchell.

“More than one million residents – mostly people of color – live within five miles of those oil derricks. There are 55 schools, 60 churches and a community college nearby. My constituents are scared, and with good reason. In 2006, two noxious gas releases in Culver City, adjacent to the oil fields, forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes, and sent many to the hospital,” said Mitchell.

Still, a yearlong study carried out by the owner and operator of the Inglewood Oil Field, Plains Exploration and Production Co., last year, claimed that their findings proved that fracturing presented no real threat to the area. That the same oil company that is profiting from the drilling found no danger in fracking should not be ignored. Many advocates of fracking around the country are by and large the oil companies and private landowning families who have the most to gain.

The Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania is perhaps the most famous and instructive site of fracking in this country. The land was recently in the news because the Hallowich family, who starred in the HBO documentary "Gaslight," received a $750,000 settlement from Range Resources to move off of their heavily fracked property. Before the settlement, the family claimed the drilling had ruined their health, causing nosebleeds and headaches that left their children hospitalized.

But the Hallowich’s are not the only family calling foul play against fracking. Homeowners around the country living near fracking sites have been recorded setting their tap water on fire and claim that methane traces in their water due to drilling is the cause of the dangerous ignition. A 2011 Duke study "found methane levels [in Pennsylvania] were an average of six times higher in the water wells closer to drilling sites, compared with those farther away. Ethane, another component of natural gas, was 23 times higher in the homes closer to