The Destructive Havoc That Fracking Has Caused To The Environment, By The Numbers

If this is the bridge to a clean energy future, we might need to burn the bridge.

The Destructive Havoc That Fracking Has Caused To The Environment, By The Numbers
Photo: Jens Lambert via Shutterstock

Since 2005, when the “Halliburton loophole” in the Energy Policy Act exempted fracking from parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws, the oil and gas industry has drilled or permitted more than 100,000 fracking wells. A new report from Environment America adds up how much damage fracking has caused so far.


The industry has used at least 239 billion gallons of water. Fracking (the nickname for hydraulic fracturing) usually involves injecting more than a million gallons of water, chemicals, and sand deep underground, at high pressure, to crack open rock and get out the oil or gas stuck inside.

In states suffering from drought, that’s water that might have used for drinking or farming. In Colorado, where almost all fracking wells are in areas of high water stress, oil and gas companies have at times paid as much as $3,300 for an acre-foot of water at auction, 100 times more than what a farmer might pay.

Once the water is sucked back out of the well, it’s toxic and can’t be used for anything else. And there aren’t any failsafe ways to store it. “We’ve seen that wastewater leak from retention ponds,” says Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s Stop Drilling program and co-author of the report. “Sometimes it’s been dumped directly into streams. It’s escaped from faulty wells. And that’s a huge risk to our drinking water. There’s really no safe or sustainable way of dealing with fracking toxic waste.”

In Pennsylvania, treatment plants have been fined for dumping wastewater directly into the Allegheny River. In North Dakota, a pipe with 3 million gallons of fracking wastewater leaked into creeks that led to a source of drinking water; in Ohio, oil-based lubricant leaked into a tributary of the Ohio River, also a source of drinking water. In California, because of a “paperwork error,” nearly 3 billion gallons of fracking wastewater were dumped into clean water aquifers.

Flickr user Kate Ausburn

157 of the chemicals used in fracking are known to be toxic; another 781 might also be, but toxicity data isn’t available.

In 2014, fracking caused at least as much climate pollution as 22 coal-fired power plants. The process of fracking releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The natural gas that fracking produces has sometimes been called “cleaner” than coal because it doesn’t produce as much CO2 when it’s burned–but that didn’t account for the problem of methane emissions, which may actually undo the progress that’s been made as coal plants shut down.


Since 2005, fracking has also damaged 679,000 acres of forest and rural landscape, a total area a little smaller than Yosemite. It’s contributed to smog. In Oklahoma, it’s made once-rare earthquakes an everyday occurrence (in 2015, the state had 907 quakes with a magnitude greater than 3.0 on the Richter scale.)

While many of the effects of fracking have been studied separately, this report aims to list everything in one place. “We are hoping that this report shows how big of a nightmare fracking has been over the past decade, and you really can’t paint the entire picture without looking at a broader scope of its impact,” says Richardson.

The researchers argue the only answer is to ban fracking, not try to regulate it. It’s something that only a couple of states–New York and Vermont–have done so far (Maryland has a moratorium on fracking). But Richardson believes more states will follow.

“I think banning fracking in New York, at one point in time, was considered extremely unlikely, and that happened,” she says. “We’re seeing more and more communities across the country standing up to fracking. I think as people learn more about the damage that fracking causes, the more opposition grows.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.