Hydraulic fracturing, known more commonly as "fracking," is a method of natural gas and oil extraction gaining widespread use throughout the world today. The recent increase in fracking has come from innovations in extraction methods, especially horizontal drilling, and financial incentives that have made fracking an economic and job boon in recent years. The fracking process forces water, sand, and a mixture of chemicals (often trade secrets) into rock fissures at high pressure to release the gas or oil from deep underground.
Fracking sand holds the fissures open so that they do not collapse. Fracking sands are specifically sized silica sands and are heavily derived from western Wisconsin due to natural glacier features and sandstone formations. The grain size and structure of the sand is important for the proper flow of the chemical and water slurry and act as a proppant in order to extract the natural gas.
Fracking has been heralded by the industry as a safe extraction method that allows us to acquire fossil fuel deposits that were not feasible to extract by conventional means; not everyone agrees, however. Arguments over groundwater contamination from methane and toxic chemicals have sparked much controversy to the fossil fuel's 'greener' image. Also, reports are indicating that leaking methane from the process, known as fugitive emissions, is significantly adding to our climate change woes due to methane's much higher global warming potential compared to carbon dioxide.
Nonetheless, hydraulic fracturing has been creating a mass of jobs and cheap energy for the us and others around the world. The relevance to sustainability is not necessarily in discrediting the need for cheap and ubiquitous energy. Rather, sustainability is pointing out that by extracting and burning this fossil fuel we will be releasing more carbon emissions than our planet can handle. That this will most likely lead to a chain of environmental and social calamities, and in some cases social disorder and social collapse.
Exhausting these resources creates wealth, jobs, and energy. However, it makes it harder for us to make decisions about our future sustainability to do those things once these sources start to run out, and our climate is further irreversibly changed. Also, fracking has been linked to seismic activity (human-induced earthquakes) and is thought to be causing a mass of local tremors near fracking operations.
(CC Image of hydraulic fracturing courtesy of www_ukberri_net on Flickr)