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The Sound of Science - 'Hydraulic Fracturing'

Sam: Welcome to the Sound of Science on WNIJ, I’m Sam from NIU STEM Outreach.

Megan: And I’m Dr. Megan Brown from NIU Geology and Environmental Geosciences. I worked as a geologist in an environmental consulting firm on the East Coast, focusing on remediation of groundwater and soil. 

Sam: Megan is here to explain a bit more about hydraulic fracturing and maybe cast it in a slightly different light.

Megan: Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of breaking apart porous rock to release crude oil and natural gas. A hole about a foot in diameter is drilled thousands of feet down, then around a mile horizontally. The hole is pumped full of water, gritty particles, and hydraulic fluids that are then pressurized. The rock cracks and the particles wedge it open.

Sam: The wedges allow the oil and gas to flow into the hole, as well as some recovered hydraulic fracturing fluid and naturally occurring saltwater. At the surface, the oil and water are separated, and because the water is very salty and still contains traces of hydrocarbons, it gets pushed back into the ground through different wells called wastewater injection sites.

Megan: That wastewater is a completely different issue, but let’s focus on hydraulic fracturing. A lot of people assume it’s the worst of the worst as far as oil and gas production goes. Contamination and spills happen, and it’s never pleasant news, but barrel-for-barrel hydraulic fracturing isn’t all that better or worse from other methods.

Sam: The newest wells in production minimize contamination within the ground. Only a tiny percentage of wells contaminate the soil around it, and those are mostly caused by structural failures. Most spills occur on the surface at similar rates to other chemical and petrol production. While not good, it’s certainly not as bad.

Megan: Those petrochemicals pulled up are used in more than just energy production. They are found in just about every facet of our lives. Ethylene glycol is an antifreeze for jet engines, xylene is a compound for Kevlar, and we wouldn’t have medical IVs without softened PVC.

Sam: I hope this episode fuels some lively discussion! This is the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

Megan: Where you learn something new every day.

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