With a major water crisis looming, humanity’s shrinking underground water supplies are at risk as toxic pollution has migrated miles beneath the surface because of poorly regulated natural gas drilling operations. Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, has been poisoning the groundwater and soil for decades, but our failure to address the issue may cost us dearly when the world’s water supply runs dangerously low. And that time is not as far away as we may think.
Impending Water Crisis
Pollution, less and less rainfall, and megadroughts are putting a strain on the planet’s water supply. Since surface water in lakes, waterways, and reservoirs is getting scarcer or more polluted, humanity must rely intensely on groundwater and massive underground reservoirs to meet its freshwater needs.
But underground water supplies are no longer safe either amid increased water demand, underground pollution tied to shale oil and gas operations, and decreased rainfall. It is estimated that in ten years’ time, humanity’s demand for drinking water will exceed the existing supplies by up to 40%.
NASA’s duo of low-altitude satellites known as GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) have recently confirmed the trend. According to NASA, the world’s largest underground water reservoirs, also known as aquifers, and the groundwater supplies across China, India, and the Middle East are shrinking at alarming rates.
The problem is so serious that in 2014, Saudi Arabia decided to halt domestic wheat production to rely only on imports and has never looked back. Riyadh took this drastic decision amid concerns that the deep underground aquifers the country is getting its freshwater from would otherwise quickly get depleted.
In the Western World, agriculture accounts for around 80% of ground and surface water use, with up to 25% being lost to evaporation. Over the last seven decades, the world’s freshwater use has tripled, while the cropland that needs irrigation has doubled. It is estimated that 25% of the world’s population currently lacks access to safe drinking water. That number may jump to 50% in 2050 if we fail to take a U-turn by then.
Fracking Making Things Worse
Hydraulic fracking is a relatively new drilling technique that injects a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals, like salt, heavy metals, and radioactive compounds into rock layers to release the oil and natural gas trapped inside. The water-intensive method has been heavily criticized for using toxic chemicals during both the extraction and water disposal processes, even though the industry claims that fracking is perfectly safe since it occurs miles underground.
What the industry fails to admit is that the process has frequently led to irreversible pollution of the air, ground, and water, with the health and property of people residing close to fracking operations sites being the most affected.
Fracking is an ongoing menace to the world’s water supplies because it is highly polluting and has little to no regulatory oversight while being based on sketchy science. Also, the ill effects on the environment and human health have been so far shrouded in secrecy.
Why is fracking so bad? In theory, the drilling method is perfectly safe, but in practice, there are two issues that may poison our surface and groundwater supplies: shallow fracking and leaking wastewater disposal wells.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, many big petroleum companies frack at shallow depths (down to 213 meters), which means that underground water reservoirs can be directly affected by the poisonous chemical cocktail released in the process. Shallow fracking is still common practice industry-wide, despite industry representatives claiming that they rarely engage in it.
Fracking also poisons freshwater supplies through its waste disposal wells. The wastewater resulted from fracking needs to be disposed of someplace and since it is no longer legal to dump it into waterways, the industry has come up with a “safer” method: underground wastewater injections.
But underground injection wells are anything but safe. According to a ProPublica investigation, between 2007 and 2010, federal inspectors found that one in six wells they had inspected were leaking. Federal reports also show that fracking wells are rarely operated according to safety regulations, which boosts the risk of leakage even more.
Because of the leaks, poisonous wastewater frequently shoots back to the surface or makes its way to underground water supplies. We might have heard horror stories about tap water catching fire because of the methane in wastewater leaked from nearby drilling sites.
Not to mention the health issues and property losses that people living close to fracking operations must put up with. Imagine what the value of your land would be if both the surface water and groundwater would be irreversibly poisoned. Hopefully, at least the nation’s environmental lawyers are increasingly aware of these issues and are striving to lend desperate property owners a helping hand in the face of an industry that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge these abuses.
To Wrap It Up
The planet’s water supplies are about to run dry or be mostly contaminated over this century, but some industries would rather be part of the problem than part of the solution. Fracking is a convenient way of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground, but the many downsides often outweigh the risks… at least for the little guys in the not-so-long run.