There was a time when people only said "fracking" to avoid using a more objectionable word. Now it can be found in national headlines, and if it's no longer a curse word, it is proving to be a serious new environmental curse.
Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a rapidly growing method for extracting oil and natural gas that may (or may not) have deadly consequences. Energy companies inject a mixture of water, sand and assorted chemicals — often including diesel fuel — at high pressure into underground wells, cracking open rock formations that would otherwise trap the valuable fossil fuels. Because this was a relatively uncommon practice until recently, oil lobbyists have been extremely successful in exempting hydraulic fracturing from many of the federal regulations that govern the release of dangerous chemicals into the environment. Today natural gas extraction is soaring and so is the practice of fracking, and the public is taking notice. It's about time.
The worry is that the chemicals used in fracking, sometimes including the carcinogen benzene, are contaminating water supplies. No one has conclusively demonstrated such contamination, but then there has been shockingly little study of the issue — and considerable evidence that political interference has discouraged regulators from thoroughly examining it. Environmental Protection Agency insiders charge that a 2004 agency study of fracking, which found that the practice posed little threat to drinking water, was seriously flawed as a result of pressure from the Bush administration and industry. The EPA is working on a new study due next year.