Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking is the process by which gas companies access underground deposits of natural gas, called shales. Millions of gallons of “fracking fluid”—that’s water and sand mixed with hundreds of chemicals—are pumped deep into the earth’s crust, breaking up rock and freeing natural gas reserves.
Natural gas is being marketed as a clean, green alternative to foreign-oil dependency; this year, the International Energy Agency found that carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. fell by four hundred and fifty tons, the result of an increase in the use of natural gas instead of coal. But since the inception of widespread fracking in 1997, horror stories have slowly entered the national conscience: illnesses coinciding with contaminated wells, citizens who can light their tap water on fire, pet and livestock deaths, exploding houses.
“The industry says [frack fluid] goes down and comes back up through pipes and is fine,” says Daniel Botkin, ecologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “In fact, stuff comes out and contaminates surface water and soil. If they wanted to do this in any reliable way, they would pick a few places and frack as an experiment and study the outcomes. That’s not what’s happening. There’s so much money to be made, fracking is done on a very large scale. It could affect a lot of people.”
Much of Northern Arkansas, including Greenbrier, sits atop the Fayetteville Shale, one of the largest natural-gas reserves in the country. Oil and gas companies began developing the area in late 2004; today, approximately four thousand gas wells plumb the depths of the shale. The Sam M. Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas estimates that the first five years of Fayetteville Shale exploration generated eleven thousand jobs and eighteen billion dollars in revenue.