By Karly Remondino
The anthropocene is a newly proposed epoch that takes into consideration the effects humans have had on the Earth. Scientists are now trying to figure out if humans have truly impacted the Earth in a way that makes this epoch different from the Holocene. It is a challenge to find something that is more characteristic of the anthropocene than the combustion of fossil fuels. Because of this, I consider the hydraulic fracturing drill to be representative of the anthropocene due to its use in retrieving fossil fuels from deep below Earth’s surface. Throughout this essay, I will discuss the process of hydraulic fracturing and how the consequences of this extraction method have affected the Earth. The hydraulic fracturing drill may be able to give scientists a better insight to when the anthropocene started, and who the anthropos of the anthropocene really are.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, has been commercially used for reaching oil and natural gas since the 1940’s. However, the fracking we think of today became prominent in the 1990’s, when better technology improved hydraulic fracturing drills. The process involves drilling wells deep below Earth’s surface into a sandstone layer that holds natural oil that is otherwise unattainable. The sandstone and oil are trapped between two layers of bedrock called shale. A highly pressurized water mixture is pumped down the wells to cause cracks, or fractures, in the bedrock. Once the water is drawn back out, oil is pulled from the cracks and shoots up the well. Drills that are used to build these wells are special because, after descending to the needed level, the drill turns and begins to dig horizontally. A horizontal well increases the amount of rock that is fractured, thus increasing the total gas extracted. Due to an increased instability in the Middle East as well as OPEC countries, the use of hydraulic fracturing in the US has greatly increased. Consequently, our domestic production of oil and natural gas resources have also increased, leading to growth in the nation’s and the world’s economy.
Although there are a few benefits to hydraulic fracturing, such as economic growth, many argue that the negative consequences of fracking are far more relevant. One of the pressing concerns is water contamination. Some deposits of natural gas that are reached via hydraulic fracturing drills are beneath watersheds, which supply water to the surrounding public. Cracks created in the bed rock during the hydraulic fracturing process may allow some of the natural gas to leak into these watersheds. This has caused concern among the public due to the fact that many hydraulic fracturing wells are within hundreds of feet from residences that rely on well water. As well as water contamination, hydraulic fracturing can cause dramatic changes to the bedrock. These changes have resulted in a large increase of small and moderate earthquakes near fracking sites. Surprisingly, most of the earthquakes are not caused by the horizontal drilling that takes place during fracking, but instead are caused by the disposal of water waste from fracking through deep well injection. As volumes of waste water increase with the frequency of hydraulic fracturing, more water will be disposed underground. This builds pressure which eventually causes the bedrock slips responsible for earthquakes. Many of the places experiencing earthquakes are not on fault lines and historically have had very few earthquakes. In fact, deep-well disposal led to a magnitude 5.7 earthquake in Oklahoma in 2011.1 There are several other reasons why people consider hydraulic fracturing to be dangerous to public health and the environment. These include air pollution from the transport of fossil fuels, explosion risk at the site of the drills, limited options for waste disposal, health problems caused by the environment of the workplace, and infrastructure instability caused by shifts in the sediments after fracturing has occurred. Air tested at 11 different hydraulic fracturing sites “exceeded relevant occupational health criteria for exposure to respirable crystalline silica”.4 Crystalline silica is a product used in the water mixture during the fracking process and can cause an incurable lung disease called silicosis, which can effect workers as well as people who live close to the hydraulic fracturing site.
Without the invention of a drill that can create horizontal wells, many of the issues associated with hydraulic fracturing would be nonexistent. Because of these specialized wells, fracking is changing Earth’s surface in a drastic way and impacting our daily lives. For this reason, I consider the drills capable of digging horizontal wells, also known as the hydraulic fracturing drill, to be remarkably representative of the anthropocene. The addiction to the use of fossil fuels can be traced back to the beginning of the fossil fuel economy. Fossil fuel economy refers an economy centered around the industrial use of fossil fuels, which started with the discovery of fossil fuels and their uses. Because of this initial discovery, technologies to utilize the energy in fossil fuels have increased very rapidly, eventually resulting in the technology of the hydraulic fracturing drill.
The hydraulic fracturing drill is a good indicator of the anthropocene, because the evidence of fracking will be around for centuries, allowing future scientists to easily identify the time in which this epoch occurred. One way scientists with be able to see the effects of hydraulic fracturing is through the study of ice cores. Ice cores tell scientists a lot about the past, because gas bubbles trapped in the ice can be analyzed to obtain information about the climate of any given time period. When future scientists look at ice core gas bubbles from the present day, they will see a rise in carbon dioxide levels that indicate higher temperatures. Dust and other human air pollutants can also be seen in ice cores. This will allow scientists to observe smog in the ice, which is indicative of natural gas extraction. Ice cores are a reliable marker of the epoch because dating them is relatively simple, and the gas bubbles represent the climate of the entire planet instead of a localized area. Lastly, evidence of fracking will also be noticed at the community level. Increased earthquakes cause a disruption in sediment layers, which can be easily noticed by those who study stratigraphy. Furthermore, it is common practice for modern-day scientists to keep detailed records of things like temperature and seismic activity, so future researchers will not have to look far to notice the increased presence of earthquakes and rise of greenhouse gas emissions.
If hydraulic fracturing continues to proliferate throughout the fossil fuel industry, the presence of humans during the anthropocene will become more and more apparent as pollutant levels in the air rise and earthquakes come to be increasingly common. When discussing the anthropocene, many wonder who is to blame for this monumental change in the Earth. If one considers that the hydraulic fracturing drill is highly representative of the anthropocene, they could argue that the anthropos, or people responsible, are composed of two groups of people. The first group of people would be the producers of fossil fuel energy, namely the big oil companies responsible for digging and maintaining the wells. Big oil companies would be considered the anthropos because they are the people responsible for the direct use of the hydraulic fracturing drill. Furthermore, these companies pay a fortune to US lobbyists in order to make hydraulic fracturing easier to do and limit the regulations put in place. The second group of people affects the anthropocene in a more indirect way. These people are the consumers. Consumers may be considered the anthropos because through purchasing and using fossil fuels, they are not only supporting, but also necessitating the big company’s direct use. In today’s society, civilization as we know it is dependent on the use of fossil fuels. This popular use of fossil fuels has led to an ignorance of the effects caused by their extraction. Without knowing all of the consequences of hydraulic fracturing, consumers are indirectly the anthropos.
Ultimately, the invention of the hydraulic fracturing drill has had an immense effect on the Earth and how humans currently live on our planet. Many people are aware that hydraulic fracturing is a dangerous process, although they may not be aware of the diverse consequences, such as earthquakes, and toxic drinking water. However, this process has become necessary to maintain the fossil economy, meaning that without sustainable energy practices, hydraulic fracturing in an integral part of the anthropocene.
- “GSA Critical Issue: Hydraulic Fracturing.” Geological Society of America, accessed May 3rd, 2016, http://www.geosociety.org/criticalissues/hydraulicFracturing/seismicity.asp.
- “How Hydraulic Fracturing Works.” National Geographic Education, accessed May 3rd, 2016, http://education.nationalgeographic.org/media/how-hydraulic-fracturing-works.
- “MINING: EPA Tackles Fracking.” John Manuel, Environmental Health Perspectives. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, accessed May 3rd, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2866701/.
- “Potential Health and Environmental Effects of Hydrofracking in the Williston Basin, Montana.” Joe Hoffman, NAGT, accessed May 3rd, 2016, http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/hydrofracking_w.html.
- “Ice Core 101.” Ice Core 101, accessed May 3rd, 2016, http://climatechange.umaine.edu/icecores/IceCore/Ice_Core_101.html.
- Carla W. Montgomery, Environmental Geology (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2014), 316-317