The Externalities of Hydraulic Fracturing

Externality is the term used when a decision results in costs or benefits to people or groups of people besides the person making the decision. As a result, the decision-maker does not shoulder all of the costs or benefit from all of the gains from his or her decision. The concept of externalities is exemplified when considering the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” This procedure is a high-tech way of extracting natural gas from shale that is thousands of feet under the surface of the earth. The process involves drilling a vertical well which then is curved horizontally, frequently more than a mile from the actual head of the well. The pipeline is surrounded by cement while high pressure fluids are pushed down the well resulting in the fracturing of the shale. Natural gas is released through the fractures.

There are a variety of externalities associated with this process, but the focus here is on the negative externalities that are the consequence of radioactive wastewater produced by fracking. The formations of rock have trapped supplies of natural gas that are centuries old, and that contains radionuclides such as radium. Some of the hydraulic fluids that are pushed into the well becomes lost in the formations of rock, and other parts of it come back up in the form of wastewater. The wastewater includes elements from the rock formation that consist of radioactive materials. In many states, the wastewater is injected underground; in other states, large wonted ease of it are trucked to wastewater treatment facilities. There it is treated and then pumped into local waterways; however, these facilities were developed to treat the pathogens and contaminants from normal household wastewater such as from toilets, showers, and washing machines. They are not equipped to treat for radionuclides, so that the fracking wastewater is sent into the water supply where there is frequently a drinking water intake pipe. As a result, communities that has surrounded hydraulic fracturing wells have experienced contaminated water supplies, forcing them to use other sources of water because of the risk of contamination. The externality of this situation involves the gas companies who are drilling the wells which are having a tremendous effect on the citizens who live near those wells; although there are economic benefits to the citizens in the areas, there are also negative health consequences to these procedures.

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