Fracking and Fracked Gas Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

Fracking and Fracked Gas Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

Grace Smoot

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Fracking has been around since the 1950s and today is an important method used in the natural gas industry. Fracked gas is often referred to as a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal and oil. So, we had to ask: What is fracking and fracked gas really, and how does it contribute to climate change?

Fracking is the process by which underground reserves of flammable, fracked gas are released. Per kWh produced, fracked gas emits 490 grams of CO2 on a life-cycle basis. It produces lower levels of CO2 than the other two fossil fuels, coal and oil, but still directly contributes to climate change.

Keep reading to find out all about what fracking and fracked gas is, its global capacity, its carbon footprint, its environmental benefits and drawbacks, and how it contributes to climate change. 

The Big Picture of Fracking and Fracked Gas

Fracked gas (FG) is acquired via the process of fracking. In the short term, FG is often seen as a transition fuel from fossil fuels to net zero methods. But its long term role is not as well-defined due to the increasing interest in renewable energy sources. 

How Is Fracking and Fracked Gas Defined

Fracked gas (FG) is a subset of natural gas (NG), a flammable gas composed of mostly methane (CH4), some hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs), and non-hydrocarbon gasses (CO2 and water vapor). It is also referred to as shale gas because it is found in shale formations deep underground. 

Natural Gas: flammable gas, consisting largely of methane and other hydrocarbons, occurring naturally underground (often in association with petroleum) and used as fuel”

Oxford Dictionary

FG is used primarily for heating and generating electricity but can also be used as a raw material (feedstock) in the production of chemicals, fertilizer, and hydrogen, and as lease and plant fuel. 

FG is acquired via the process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing). In this process, water, sand, and chemicals are forced down a well at high pressure, breaking rock formations containing oil and NG. FG is released and then flows up through the well to the surface. 

Fracking: a method of getting oil or gas from the rock below the surface of the ground by making large cracks in it. Fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Spurred by fluctuating oil prices and increased awareness of untapped energy reserves, the global fracking market is predicted to increase from $15.31 billion (b) in 2021 to $28.93b in 2028.

What fracking and fracked gas isFG is a flammable gas composed mostly of CH4 that is acquired via the process of fracking.
How fracking and fracked gas worksFracking occurs when water, sand, and chemical additives are pumped through a well into underground reservoirs of oil and NG. The force of the fluid fractures the shale rock containing the oil and NG, which allows FG to flow upwards through the well to the surface.
The global capacity of fracking and fracked gasNG is a finite resource, and if we continue to use it at our current rate we can expect to run out of coal in approximately 50 years.
The carbon footprint of fracking and fracked gasOn a life-cycle basis, NG emits 490 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, the third-highest amount out of all of the fuel types, but the lowest out of the three fossil fuels. 
The environmental benefits of fracking and fracked gasAlthough fracking and FG do not benefit the environment, improving technology and drilling methods plus reducing CH4 leaks could possibly mitigate their environmental impact.
The environmental drawbacks of fracking and fracked gasBurning NG adds to the total levels of CO2 and CH4 in our atmosphere, expedites global warming, and causes air pollution, water pollution, and landscape alterations.
Fracking and fracked gas and climate changeNG contributes to climate change by exacerbating temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification.

How Does Fracking and Fracked Gas Work

The process of fracking releases underground reserves of NG, which can then be combusted in a gas-fired power plant to produce steam which turns a turbine and spins a generator to produce electricity.

How Does Fracking and Fracked Gas Actually Produce Energy

Fracking occurs when stimulation fluid, 90% water and sand plus chemical additives, is pumped through the well deep into underground reservoirs of oil and NG. The force of the fluid fractures the shale rock containing the oil and NG. The NG then flows upwards through the well to the surface. 

Illustration of how shale gas extraction works
The British Geologic Survey: How shale gas extraction works

NG and oil are extracted from the same well, and NG is dissolved in oil. Pure NG contains contaminants that first need to be removed before NG can be transported through pipelines. Processing NG is often complex and consists of many steps to remove impurities such as oil, water, HGLs, sulfur, helium, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, and CO2. Each well site is different, and the steps required vary from well to well.

Processing NG typically involves four main steps:

  1. Oil and condensate removal
  2. Water removal
  3. Separation of natural gas liquids
  4. Sulfur and CO2 removal

After processing, the NG is transported either directly to consumers or to a gas-fired power plant. At a gas-fired power plant, NG is converted into energy via the following process:

  • NG is put into the combustion chamber of a boiler, where it is incinerated. 
  • The hot gasses and heat energy convert water into steam. 
  • The steam is then passed into a turbine where it rotates the blades at a high speed. 
  • The blades then turn a generator which generates the electricity. 
  • Once the steam passes through the turbine it is condensed back into water and returned to the boiler chamber to be reheated.

NG plants have an average age of 22 years in the US. When a well is done producing NG it is plugged to stop the flow of methane to the surface. However, over 3 million abandoned oil and gas wells are unplugged in the US alone, and these wells leak millions of metric tons of methane into our atmosphere every year. Simply plugging these wells could reduce methane emissions by 99%, which would help mitigate global warming. 

What Is the Global Capacity of Fracking and Fracked Gas

Fossil fuel consumption began with the Industrial Revolution, and consumption has increased exponentially over the past 70 years. The type of fuel we consume has shifted from solely coal, to coal and oil, and lastly to coal, oil, and NG. 

Since 2010, 80% of NG growth has been concentrated within the US, China, and the Middle East. Russia currently has the largest NG reserves in the world, totaling at least 37 trillion cubic meters.

Illustration of worldwide gas consumption in 2021
Our World in Data: Gas Consumption

The top 5 NG-consuming countries (billion cubic meters (bcm) per year) in the world are:

  1. United States – 826
  2. Russia – 474
  3. China – 378
  4. Iran – 241
  5. Canada – 119

Global NG demand declined by 75bcm as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unlike the other fossil fuels, NG saw a quick recovery as lockdown measures were eased and seasonal electricity demand and competitive prices increased gas consumption. The recovery was and still is spurred by fast-growing markets in Asia and the Middle East.

The top 10 largest NG producers in the world account for 73% of global NG global production. The top 5 NG-producing countries (bcm per year) in the world are:

  1. United States – 934
  2. Russia – 701
  3. Iran – 256
  4. China – 209
  5. Qatar – 177

Although the exact date at which we will run out of NG is unknown, if we continue to use it at our current rate, we can expect to run out of NG in approximately 50 years. Russia, Iran, Qatar, Turkmenistan, and the United States currently possess the biggest NG reservoirs, totaling roughly 127 trillion cubic meters. NG is a finite resource, and finding substitute energy sources will be necessary to sustain our global economy in the future. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Fracking and Fracked Gas

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as CH4, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period

Merriam Webster

Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or an organization. This includes GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly (e.g., heating a home, driving a car) and GHG emissions from manufacturing the products that we use (e.g., power plants, factories, and landfills). 

Because FG is a subset of NG, we can use the values for NG in our carbon footprint analysis. On a life-cycle basis, NG emits 490 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, the third-highest amount out of all of the fuel types, but the lowest out of the three fossil fuels

Have a look at the illustration below to see the average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions of different energy sources and how they compare to NG.

Illustration of CO2 equivalent per energy source
World Nuclear Association: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

When discussing the carbon footprint of fracking and FG, we must take into account carbon emissions across its building, operating, and building back phases.

The life-cycle stages of fracking and fracked gasEach stage’s carbon footprint
Building of fracking and fracked gasCO2 emissions from extracting and processing FG, transportation through pipes and on ships, construction of NG power plants 
Operating of fracking and fracked gasCO2 emissions from FG combustion, operation of equipment at power plants, and leakage of CH4 from in-service wells
Building back of fracking and fracked gasCO2 emissions from plugging wells and decommissioning power plantsCH4 seepage from unplugged wells 

The world collectively emitted 7.40 billion tons (bt) of CO2 from NG in 2020. 

Illustration of CO2 emissions by fuel line
Our World in Data: CO2 emissions by fuel type, World

Burning NG emits 117 lbs of CO2 per million Btu. Although the CO2 emissions from the combustion of NG are about 50%-60% less than those from coal and oil, the primary component of NG, CH4, is 34 times stronger at trapping heat than CO2 over 100 years. This means that a little CH4 can go a long way when contributing to global warming.

Because fracking and FG emit less CO2 than coal and oil but also emit a potent GHG, it is important to understand what their carbon footprint is and how their carbon emissions affect the global climate change process.

Related: Are you interested in more about the carbon footprint of natural gas? Check it out in this article here: “What Is the Carbon Footprint of Natural Gas?

How Environmentally Friendly Is Fracking and Fracked Gas

NG is one of the world’s most abundant fossil fuel sources, but the combustion of NG produces over 7 bt of CO2 emissions every year, contributing significantly to global climate change.

Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

NG is often touted as the cleanest fossil fuel because its rate of CO2 emissions that contribute to global climate change is lower than that of coal and oil. However, fracking and FG still possess environmental drawbacks that must be taken into consideration, along with their comparative benefits.

What Are Environmental Drawbacks of Fracked Gas

Fracking has environmental drawbacks that are important to understand:

  • Drilling: This can disturb vegetation and soil and may require clearing and leveling the area around a well pad. Drilling also produces air pollution and may contaminate water sources via erosion, fracking fluids, equipment runoff, and sedimentation. 
  • Landscape alterations: Drilling for NG causes surface distribution from drill pads, roads, and pipelines that alter the landscape. Fragmentation of wildlife habitat and migration patterns have also been documented. 
  • Water pollution: Land clearing may cause dirt, minerals, and other pollutants to erode into nearby waterways. Drinking water may become contaminated with hazardous chemicals via drilling, fracturing, processing, and refining the gas, and wastewater disposal. 

And although FG is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than both coal and oil, it still comes with drawbacks:

  • Air pollution: When NG is burned at well sites, it releases CO2, carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Burning NG instead of releasing it directly into the atmosphere produces lower levels of GHG emissions because CO2 is not as potent as CH4, but it still contributes to the overall level of CO2 in our atmosphere. 
  • Atmospheric CO2: Levels of CO2 in our atmosphere have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. Emissions increased steadily to 5 billion tons per year in the mid-20th century before increasing exponentially to more than 35 billion tons per year at the end of the 20th century. The global average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 but today registers at over 400 ppm. By the end of the 21st century, this number is expected to exceed 900 ppm. Burning coal adds to this total, which in turn amplifies the greenhouse effect and causes global warming. 
  • Global warming: This phenomenon occurs when CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must limit global warming to 1.5C by 2040

Fracking and FG can alter the landscape and contaminate water sources. FG combustion also adds to atmospheric CO2 levels and contributes to global warming. The easiest way to mitigate the environmental impact of fracking and FG is simply not to rely on them in the first place. FG combustion releases toxic chemicals and heavy metals, leaks CH4, and contributes directly to global warming. 

What Are Ways to Make Fracked Gas Less Environmentally Detrimental 

Although FG is a fossil fuel, there are ways to reduce its environmental impact. And as a plus, the CO2 emissions associated with fracking and FG are lower than that of coal and oil. 

  • Controlling CH4 leaks: NG is considered the cleanest fossil fuel because it has lower levels of CO2, CO, nitrogen oxides, and SO2 than both coal and oil. However, these emissions and CH4 still contribute directly to global climate change. The best way to mitigate its environmental impact is to detect, fix, and repair CH4 leaks from well-pads, processing plants, compressor stations, and large distribution facilities. Doing this can reduce CH4 output by 1.70-1.80 million metric tons per year. Plugging abandoned NG wells also prevents the seepage of CH4 into the atmosphere. 
  • Prioritize renewable natural gas (RNG): RNG is biogas, the product of organic matter decomposition, that has been processed and purified. It can then be used as a transportation fuel in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). Because there is no drilling or fracking, RNG has a lower carbon footprint than NG.
  • Recycle water and use efficient production practices: Fracking uses a large amount of water, so recycling water and avoiding utilizing freshwater sources can reduce water requirements. Constructing wells properly and maintaining them after drilling is complete is crucial for efficiency. 
  • Implement practices that reduce the risk of induced seismicity: Fracking can cause seismic activity that leads to earthquakes. Avoiding water injection into active fault lines, limiting injection rates, installing seismic monitors, establishing a protocol for when seismic activity is induced, and abandoning wells with seismic activity are all ways to mitigate this threat. 

Fracking and FG can be more efficient and environmentally friendly if certain protocols and environmental mitigation practices are followed. 

How Does Fracking and Fracked Gas Contribute to Climate Change

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term, global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 bt of CO2 is emitted from burning fossil fuels. 21% (7.5bt) of this comes from NG. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2. This warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket, and a warmer earth comes with a host of negative side effects. Also with NG, CH4 leaks release GHG emissions that are substantially more potent than CO2.

CO2 and CH4 emissions associated with fracking and FG contribute to climate change in the following ways:

  • Melting of sea ice: Since 1979 arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet. 
  • Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
  • Ocean acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. 

The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

To help keep global temperature rise below 1.5C, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, we must shift at least 80% of our electricity generation to low carbon sources. Over 120 countries have already stated their net-zero carbon emissions ambitions for 2050 or 2060. But only 12 countries have thus far proposed or enacted any legislation, indicating that there is more work to be done.

Final Thoughts

Fracked gas is a flammable gas that occurs naturally underground and can be acquired via the process of fracking. The fracked gas can then be combusted in power plants which creates steam to turn a turbine and spin a generator to produce electricity. Fracked gas is a subset of natural gas, and if we continue to use it at current rates we can expect to deplete it in approximately 50 years.

Fracked gas is often considered a cleaner burning fossil fuel than coal and oil. But cleaner doesn’t mean totally clean. Fracked gas combustion still releases CO2 into our atmosphere, albeit at lower levels. But the main concern is CH4 leakage from wells and from combustion. CH4 is a far more potent GHG than CO2, so a little goes a long way in expediting global warming.

Fracking can pose significant environmental threats including landscape alterations, water pollution, and erosion. In the short term, fracking and fracked gas can be a viable option to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. But in the long-term, they still pollute our environment and contribute to global warming.

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