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Mechanics of Fracking

Part I of a three-part series. Go here for Part II and here for Part III.

Call it a “teachable moment” or an “AHA” moment, but the recent water main break at UCLA, the one that flooded Pauley Pavilion and a lot of the rest of the campus, gives us a good picture of how fracking works. A

ccording to news stories, a 30-inch diameter water main, operating at about 200 PSI (pounds per square inch) pressure ruptured. This sent water shooting 30 feet or so up into the air; you no doubt saw the pictures. Estimates say that between 8 and 10 million gallons of water flooded UCLA.

Now, imagine all that water, 10 million gallons or so, collected and stuffed into a pipe only 12 inches in diameter, that’s stuck down in the ground. Raise the pressure from the 200 PSI the large main carried to about 4,000 PSI, then blast it down into the ground. You have just fracked one well, one time.

To get a picture of what this blast of water does to the rock below, try this: put a brick on the sidewalk. Hit the brick with a large hammer. Notice all the broken pieces and shards. That’s what fracking does. Notice, also, that the brick does not heal itself. Neither do the rocks. Once fracked, they stay that way.

Fracking is a nickname for Hydraulic Fracturing, a method of forcing fluid into the ground under pressure to break up hydrocarbon-bearing rock formations. Fracking is used to boost production on both oil and natural gas wells. The process is the same. I

t is also a very complicated process. The three main components: the mechanical, “how-to” parts; the political parts; and the money parts are all wound up together in a series of very tangled webs. To make some sense out of the picture, it’s easier to look at each segment separately, then tie everything together. References are provided, and readers are encouraged to do large amounts of research, to protect your health and property, if nothing else.

From the viewpoint of those who don’t think they need to worry, since they don’t live close to a fracking site, the bad news is: you probably live closer than you think, and you should worry. With the advances in horizontal drilling technology, the lack of public information about fracked sites, and the high correlation between fracking and seismic activity and between fracking and toxic air and water emissions, you could be in for a surprise.

As mentioned, fracking is basically drilling a hole into the ground, then pumping water and other materials into that hole under high pressure. The fracturing of the rocks opens up the pockets of natural gas and oil, so they can be pumped to the surface more easily. The process was patented by Stanolind (Standard Oil of Indiana) in 1947. Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company bought the rights to license the process in 1951, and has been one of the world leaders in numbers of fracked wells.

fracking diagram

Main Problems with Fracking

First, there is the problem of what you are drilling into. Most of us think of the Earth as looking like a layer cake. If you could slice out a cross section, you would see the newer layers of rock and earth set down neatly on top of the older layers. And in the Midwest, that’s largely true, and makes the oil well planning and drilling easier.

But here on the West Coast, the layers have been bent and folded due to long-term seismic activity. Our cross section would look more like a tossed salad, with the layers of rock and earth at all angles to each other. In some places the oil lies on the surface, as with the famous La Brea Tar Pits; in other places the oil is buried deep underground. Drilling down though this jumble requires more planning and more drilling time and equipment.

Second, is the problem with what is pumped into the fracked wells. The main ingredient is water. Lots of water. Remember the UCLA flood? That’s about the same volume of water needed to frack one well, one time.

Think of it this way: the average home in California uses about 360 gallons of water a day. Fracking one well, one time, uses enough water to supply over 25,000 homes for an entire day.

And this is drinking-quality water, which is currently in very short supply; especially in California. And water which can’t be reused.

Along with millions of gallons of drinking water, diesel fuel, hydrochloric acid, and other toxic additives are pumped into the wells. Approximately 40,000 gallons of these chemicals are used for one fracking.

Third, is the problem of what comes out of the wells. The water, contaminated with toxic and carcinogenic metals and minerals, cannot be pumped back into the water table; some of this water also leaks from the wells, and shows up in aquifers that supply drinking water.

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Fracking Math

  • There are 500,000 active gas wells in the US.
  • Each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site.
  • It takes 1-8 million gallons of water to complete each fracturing job.
  • The water brought in is mixed with sand and chemicals to create fracking fluid.
  • Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used per fracturing.


500,000 active wells
8 million gallons of water per fracking
18 times a well can be fracked
72 trillion (72,000,000,000,000) (7.2 x 1013) gallons of drinking quality water


360 billion (360,000,000,000) (3.6 x 1011) gallons of chemicals, many toxic, needed to run our current gas wells


Only 30-50% of fracturing fluid is recovered. The rest, 50-70%, is left in the ground and is not biodegradable. Some waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone.

Fracking Byproducts

A few of the products a fracked well can produce are

  • Boron: It causes respiratory and developmental effects. It also causes fetal damage in higher concentrations.
  • Ethylene glycol: Anti-freeze, essentially. It causes metabolism failure, heart failure, and kidney failure.
  • Formaldehyde: Embalming fluid. It causes lung and nasopharyngeal cancer, and reproductive system damage.
  • Hydrochloric acid: Causes corrosion of the mucous membranes, esophagus, and stomach. Dermal contact may produce severe burns, ulceration, and scarring in humans. Chronic (long-term) occupational exposure to hydrochloric acid has been reported to cause gastritis, chronic bronchitis, and dermatitis.
  • Lead: Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.
  • Mercury: Mercury in any form is poisonous. Toxicity most commonly affects the neurologic, gastrointestinal (GI) and renal organ systems.
  • Methanol: Wood alcohol. It causes damage to the visual, neuro, and metabolic systems.
  • Radium: It affects the blood system, and musculoskeletal systems.
  • Uranium: The main chemical effect associated with exposure to uranium and its compounds is kidney toxicity

Part II of the story will show some of the damages caused by fracking, both to our health, and our property; how little fracking is regulated or reported; and how it got to be this way.

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John MacMurray