Friday, November 22nd, 2013
Fracking is a combination of fracturing and cracking rock through use of chemically-treated water and sand, pumped deep underground under pressure.
Fracking and radon have been in the news lately because of efforts to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. The tiny cracks created in the rock permit it to release natural gas and ancient brine previously trapped in the rock. The liquid with natural gas (flowback) is then withdrawn from the well.
Radon gas is a naturally-occurring radioactive by-product of the gradual breakdown of uranium.
Radon is found in rocks everywhere but shale contains higher amounts than other rocks. Although it is invisible, odorless, and colorless, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking.
What is the relationship of radon to natural gas?
The answer lies in geology and technology. Pennsylvania has long been recognized as a state with many natural resources, including oil, natural gas (not the gasoline you put in your car), coal and water. Shale, a sedimentary rock, contains natural gas, but the shale is so dense that the gas cannot escape. The combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling creates fractures in the rock and permits natural gas to “escape” through the pores opened up through fracking. Natural gas can then be recovered as part of “flowback water.”
Flowback Water is water that literally “flows back” during the fracking process.
Flowback water is a mixture of fracking fluid and formation water (i.e., water rich in brine from the targeted shale gas-rich rock). Once the chemistry of the water coming out of the well resembles the rock formation rather than the fracking fluid, it is known as produced water and can continue to flow as long as a well is in operation. (For more, see “Natural Gas, Hydrofracking and Safety: The Three Faces of Fracking Water.”)
The shale that contains natural gas also contains radioactive uranium.
As radium breaks down it produces radon gas, which is also radioactive and a carcinogen. The same process that fractures the shale and releases the natural gas, also permits the escape of radon gas. More radon is released into the environment, exposing energy workers and those living and working nearby to potentially higher levels of radon.
Fracking may damage water resources and trigger small earthquakes.
The process of fracking may damage water resources through the drilling process and storage and treatment of waste water. Fracking may also trigger small earthquakes which can further disrupt soil, rock and water, easing the path of radon to the surface. Basically, the same process that releases the natural gas releases radon and has both positive and negative results for humans and the environment.
There is much more to be learned about fracking. As with so many modern challenges, decisions about the use of fracking involve balancing public health and environmental safety concerns with the desire for clean, cheap energy.
Builders, homeowners and renters seeking more information on Radon Testing and Radon Mitigation should contact a certified radon specialist. Next Step Environmental Services LLC is an excellent resource for self-testing materials, professional inspections and effective and economical remediation.