If you've been paying any attention to the natural gas industry over the past few years you've certainly heard about the new controversial drilling technique known as "fracking." The term is a shortened version of the technique's full name – hydraulic fracturing – which has paved the way for harvesting previously untouchable natural gas fields associated with underground shale formations.

While much of the press about fracking has been negative, with claims of environmental concerns and damage, there are also upsides to the story of the emergence of this new technology. In 2012 the International Energy Agency predicted that the United States would be a net oil exporter by 2030, in part because of the development of new natural gas resources helping to limit demand for oil-based fuels.

Fracking is a complicated issue, and one that has taken the front seat in domestic U.S. policy discussions. In an effort to better educate you on the issue, let's talk about what fracking is in detail and what others are saying about the industry's eagerness to embrace this new technology.

The advent of hydraulic fracturing

While we've only begun to hear about hydraulic fracturing in the past few years, the general concept has been around for a long time. In the 19th century people used explosives to fracture rock formations as a way to open wells, though the idea to use water and a mixture of other materials to deliberately fracture a formation wasn't used until Standard Oil pioneered the technique in 1949.

The hydraulic fracturing that has become the crux of today's controversy is the result of decades of refining this original process. The advent of horizontal drilling technology is what enabled the fracking of natural gas deposits like the Marcellus shale formation stretching along the west side of the Appalachian mountain range. Since the late 2000s gas companies have drilled hundreds of new wells in this region, which has led to the current controversy over the practice.

What's all the controversy about?

Hydraulic fracturing is a process of forcing water mixed with chemicals into the ground to break up rock that stores natural gas. After the water mixture achieves its purpose of breaking up the formation, it's common practice to store the wastewater underground as well. According to some activist groups, this wastewater storage is contributing to major public health concerns, particularly in proximity to the Marcellus formation.

These groups are concerned that the wastewater is not being sufficiently contained, resulting in poisoning of the water table. While these claims have yet to be endorsed by government institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, more and more individuals are speaking up about the results of fracking on their property in the areas where the most extensive drilling is taking place.

Over the next few years as oil and gas companies continue to push for fracking leases across the country, there's little chance of the controversy suddenly evaporating. The promise of energy independence for such an energy-dependent nation and the threat of environmental backlash are sure to spread support across both arguments.

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