Like Oil and Water: The Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing on Water Sanitation and Accessibility in Oklahoma

By Shane Brady | RACE

Jan 05

History and Origins of Fracking

Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking as it is commonly referred to, consists of a variety of similar processes utilized to locate and recover oil and natural gas from beneath the earth’s surface (EPA, 2016). The process of hydraulic fracturing utilizes the expulsion of liquids at very high-pressure levels to create fractures in the rock formations beneath the ground. The high-pressure liquids are typically comprised of wastewater, proponent, and additive chemicals. In order to expel the high-pressure liquid deep underground, vertical wells are first dug thousands of feet below ground. Once the high pressure liquids create fractures within the earth for oil or natural gas to escape, liquids flow back to the surface and are collected in large containers. The flow back consists of the original chemicals and wastewater, along with naturally occurring minerals as well as contaminants. While in recent times, the debate over the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment has become more documented and public, debates over the ethics of manufacturing fossil fuels is a long standing debate.

The search for oil and natural gas is not a new concept in America (Manfreda, 2014). The original method for oil drilling dates back to the civil war, and involved a rudimentary method of firing artillery into a canal. This method increased oil production by 1200 percent (2014). The next step in hydraulic fracturing was in the 1930’s. Instead of using a wired torpedo, drillers used non-explosive liquid acid. Additionally, in 1947 a more refined method of fracking was created, which utilized a form of gelled gasoline that was directly injected into limestone, in much the same way as wastewater and chemicals are used today. Finally, in 1949, in an oil well near Duncan, Oklahoma, the Halliburton oil company created an injection method for locating and capturing oil by injecting a highly pressurized mix of water and sand into formed rock miles into the ground. While the hydraulic fracturing process continued to be refined into the 1990s through technological innovations, the basic premise of injection and extraction of oil and natural gas is decades old.

Oklahoma Context

The oil and gas industry is an important contributor to the economy of Oklahoma. 20 percent of all jobs in the state are related to the oil and gas sector (OERB, 2014). Additionally, the oil and gas industry brings in more than $513 million dollars to the state of Oklahoma, and more than $325 million to public education for a state that ranks 49th in the nation for education (Juozapavicius, 2016). Despite the economic benefits provided by the oil and gas industry, the practice of hydraulic fracturing has caused negative impacts throughout the state, the extent of which, are still being researched and debated (EPA, 2016). For instance, in 2016, 567 earthquakes greater than a 3.0 magnitude were recorded in Oklahoma, the most of any state in the country (USGS, 2016). While it is difficult to determine the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the increased seismic activity in the state, many residents believe that fracking is to blame for the high number of earthquakes (Ballotpedia, 2016). Most recently, Oklahoma was found to have some of the most contaminated and poorest water quality in the U.S. (United Health Foundation, 2016). While it may be difficult to prove at this point the degree to which hydraulic fracturing has contributed to the decline of water quality in the state, it is difficult to ignore the increasing amount of circumstantial evidence that points to a relationship between hydraulic fracturing, increased seismic activity, and compromised water quality.

Overview of Hydraulic fracturing Debate

Although some experts from the scientific community have come out in support of the relative safety of hydraulic fracturing, others stand opposed to the practice (EPA, 2016). Hydraulic fracturing proponents argue that this method is well regulated (Manfreda, 2014). Two organizations, American Petroleum Institute (API) and FracFocus, contend that the procedure of hydraulic fracturing is consistently being reviewed and adjusted to address the influences of hydraulic fracturing (Ballotpedia, 2016). API, an oil and gas trade association is considered to be proactive in making recommendations and setting policy standards. FracFocus, a voluntary organization which partners with companies, helps to provide public access information relating to the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Both organizations, and others, feel that all information such as health hazards and environmental matters pertaining to hydraulic fracturing being transparently available to the public (2016). Given that hydraulic fracturing is considered an important technology for gas and oil extractions, as it helped to revitalize the economy. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), six myths exist about hydraulic fracturing.

  • Hydraulic fracturing is not the cause of the majority of the induced earthquakes, because wastewater disposal is the principal cause of the current increase in earthquakes in the central US, because wastewater is not exclusive to hydraulic fracturing. Virgin rock formations are thought to have wastewater.
  • Not all wastewater injection wells make earthquakes, as a combination of many different influences necessary for injection create the problem.
  • Wastewater is a product of all oil wells, not hydraulic fracturing sites.
  • All wastewater is not the same. USGS states that lest than 10% injected water contains hydraulic fracturing chemicals.
  • The injection points are not always the location of seismicity, as it can occur 10 or more miles away from the originating site.
  • Surface pressure is not needed to induce earthquakes

Despite the evidence provided by the USGS and others, many environmental justice proponents contend that hydraulic fracturing in Oklahoma has led to many environmental concerns, including the stability and quality of water. As of 2012, an estimated 11,000 private and commercial injection and disposal wells exist in Oklahoma (Oklahoma Corporation Commission, 2016). In 2014, Wertz reports that of all the lower 48 states, Oklahoma experienced the most seismic activity. Interestingly, Oklahoma also experienced three times more earthquakes than California. Pro-hydraulic fracturing activists say this increase is partially due to other wastewater related activities and should not exclusively be blamed on hydraulic fracturing. But, is there a connection between wastewater disposal and hydraulic fracturing? Additionally, is there a connection between hydraulic hydraulic fracturing and wastewater contamination?

As discussed above, hydraulic fracturing produces wastewater containing chemicals used to extract gas and oil. Is it unreasonable to consider that this method produces flow back that can contaminate drinking water? The EPA (2015), defines “flow back and produced water” as the return of injected fluid and water produced from the collective formation of produced water to the surface, and subsequent transport for reuse, treatment and disposal (EPA, 2016, pp. 1-3). This same report, which was created using relevant scientific data and literature from various academic, engineering, federal and state reports, found that the below ground mechanisms of hydraulic fracturing does have the potential to impact drinking water resources. The EPA findings illustrate no evidence to suggest that there is a widespread systemic impact on drinking water as a result of hydraulic fracturing. While the EPA report does not indicate widespread impact of fracking on drinking water, the report also states that there is insignificant pre and post-fracturing data regarding the quality of drinking water (EPA, 2016, pp. 3-38). If the data for this report is coming from various responsible resources, yet no decisive conclusion can be reached, what, then, is really happening when hydraulic fracturing occurs, and wastewater is disposed of? How does the general public know what is fact or fiction? It is important for social workers and researchers to examine all evidence critically and through a lens of social, economic, and environmental justice. For instance, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of research into the impact of hydraulic fracturing has been sponsored or conducted by oil and natural gas companies whom have vested interests in the outcomes of the research. Contrarily, environmentalists may not be considering the multidimensionality of ethics and justice involved in analyzing the impact of fracking. For example, if more environmentally friendly policies are created that limit or abolish fracking in the U.S., what impact will those policies have on communities, industries, and states that depend on the oil and natural gas industry for a healthy economy? If fracking is regulated more strictly or eliminated all together in favor of alternative energy sources, will these new sources be affordable for working class and impoverished citizens? It is these complex questions that must be considered with regard to the impact and effects of fracking on the environment, which is why social work must be more active in environmental justice research and advocacy efforts.

Current Efforts 

In response to issues concerning hydraulic fracturing, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) has established regulatory and research guidelines concerning hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells and well completion operations (Wertz, 2016). Additionally, the University of Oklahoma has created interdisciplinary working groups, which includes social work faculty, to explore environmental justice issues within the oil and natural gas industries. Also, several grassroots organizing efforts have sprung up to provide oversight as well as advocacy against hydraulic fracturing practices. Finally, after the largest earthquake in recent Oklahoma history was attributed to hydraulic fracturing, several local communities are suing the companies responsible for the earthquake for damages to homes, businesses, and local infrastructure (Hughes, 2016). For a comprehensive list of actions taken by the OCC, please read the executive summary.

Social Work and Environmental Justice: Discussion and Critical Thinking

It is difficult to discern the truth of the effects of hydraulic fracturing. Of course, the interests of drilling companies, governmental entities and private organization provide this information. And, as with any hot button issue, the media also contributes to distribution of the knowledge of and rumors concerning the issues related to hydraulic fracturing. Within the profession of social work, it is clear in the NASW Code of Ethics that social workers should value social justice, which includes challenging injustices that impact marginalized groups and communities (NASW, 2008). Additionally, the new accreditation standards (EPAS) provided by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), makes the case that schools of social work should be preparing students to engage in practices that promote economic, social, and environmental forms of justice (CSWE, 2015). In connection to the issue of hydraulic fracturing, social work practitioners, researchers, and educators should consider the following questions:

  1. To what extent is social work prepared to advocate for environmental justice, especially at the practitioner level? How do we prepare social works to engage in advocacy and organizing for environmental justice?
  2. What are the challenges and barriers to social work becoming more invested in environmental justice (ex. water rights, safety, ethics) from a research perspective?
  3. How does one consider and balance the complexity of ethical issues in relation to hydraulic fracturing, including; economic needs of communities and people, employment opportunities, health and wellbeing of people, and environmental degradation?
  4. What are the deeper issues and considerations at play with relation to hydraulic fracturing and related environmental justice issues in high need communities, especially high need communities of color or tribal communities?
  5. What are the injustices currently impacting water rights in the U.S.?
  6. When considering “water rights”, how should water rights be defined? Whom should have water rights?
  7. Is a lack of water rights a new social issue in the U.S. or a historical issue that is just now gaining attention in popular media? Please explain your response.
  8. When considering legislating policy with relation to water, what dimensions and issues should policy makers consider and prioritize?
  9. When considering ownership of water, whom should have the right to own natural water supplies?
  10. What role is social work playing, if any, in the various water themed struggles around the U.S.? What should the role of social work be in advocacy for water rights and justice?


Oklahoma Corporation Commission. (2016). Earthquake response summary. Retrieved from:

Eaton, K. (2016). Oklahoma’s largest earthquake shuts down Osage, Pawnee nation.

Indian Country Media Network. Retrieved from: earthquake-shuts-down-osage-pawnee-nation/

Environmental Protection Agency (2016). The process of hydraulic fracturing. Retrieved from:

Hughes, T. (2016). Oklahoma residents sue oil companies over quakes. USA Today. Retrieved                from: companies-over quakes/95056396/

Hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas: impacts from the hydraulic fracturing water cycle on drinking water resources in the United States (Research Report No. EPA-600-R-16-236Fa). (2016, December). Washington, DC: Office of Research and Development. Retrieved from: prompt-revolt-despair-oklahoma

Manfreda, J. (2014, April 14). The origin of hydraulic fracturing actually dates back to the civil war. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from fracturing-2015-4

Hydraulic fracturing in Oklahoma. (2016). Retrieved December 14, 2016, from Hydraulic fracturing_in_Oklahoma#Major_issues (“Hydraulic fracturing in Oklahoma,” 2016).

OK Energy Today. (2016). New environmental group forming in Oklahoma to stop hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes. Retrieved from: fracturing-and-earthquakes/

Vaidya Nathan, G. (2016, April 4). Hydraulic fracturing can contaminate drinking water. Retrieved December 4, 2016, from Scientific American website: fracturing-can-contaminate-drinking-water.

Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (2014). Economic Impact Report. Retrieved from:

Suggested Readings for the Classroom

Dewane, C.J. (2011). Environmentalism and social work: The ultimate social justice issue, 11, 20. Retrieved from:

Jarvis, D. (2016). Environmental justice and social work: a call to expand the social work profession to include environmental justice. Columbia Social Work Review, (2013). Retrieved from: a-call-to-action-for-the-social-work-profession/

National Association of Social Workers (2008). Environmental policy statement. Retrieved from:

Schmitz, C. L., Matyók, T., Sloan, L., & James, C. D. (2012). The Relationship Between Social Work and Environmental Sustainability: Implications for Interdisciplinary Practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21(3),278-286. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00855.x

Teixeira, S., & Krings, A. (2015). Sustainable Social Work: An Environmental Justice Framework for Social Work Education. Social Work Education34(5), 513-527. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1063601

Films and Documentary Resources

FrackNation (2016) – Available on Netflix and YouTube

Gasland (2010) – Available on YouTube

Gasland Part II (2013) – Available on YouTube

Triple Divide (2013) – Available on website

Tar Creek (Oklahoma’s most polluted town) – Available on YouTube

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