How has air quality been affected by the US fracking boom? Urban air pollution in the U.S. has been decreasing near continuously since the 1970s.
Federal regulations, notably the Clean Air Act passed by President Nixon, to reduce toxic air pollutants such as benzene, a hydrocarbon, and ozone, a strong oxidant, effectively lowered their abundance in ambient air with steady progress.
But about 10 years ago, the picture on air pollutants in the U.S. started to change. The “fracking boom” in several different parts of the nation led to a new source of hydrocarbons to the atmosphere, affecting abundances of both toxic benzene and ozone, including in areas that were not previously affected much by such air pollution.
As a result, in recent years there has been a spike of research to determine what the extent of emissions are from fracked oil and gas wells – called “unconventional” sources in the industry. While much discussion has surrounded methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, less attention has been paid to air toxics.
Fracking is a term that can stir strong emotions among its opponents and proponents. It is actually a combination of techniques, including hydraulic fracturing, that has allowed drillers to draw hydrocarbons from rock formations which were once not profitable to tap.
Drillers shatter layers of shale rock with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to start the flow of hydrocarbons from a well. The hydraulic fracturing process itself, aside from its large demand for water, is possibly the least environmentally impactful step along the complete operational chain of drilling for hydrocarbons. Arguably, the more relevant environmental effects are wastewater handling and disposal, as well as the release of vapors from oil and gas storage and distribution.