Hydraulic Fracturing and Unconventional Drilling

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” is a practice that involves pumping water, sand, and a complex brew of chemicals into an oil or gas well to increase production. However, evolution in technology and changes in the application of this process have made “unconventional drilling” the new convention. (Learn more about conventional vs. unconventional drilling here)

Since the 1980s, operators have experimented with increasing the amount of fluid and pressure used in fracking, and in 1996, a Texas oil company performed the first high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracture operation on a horizontally drilled well in the Barnett Shale. Since then, this “modern fracking” has stimulated a boom in domestic oil and gas production that has transformed western public lands into densely developed industrial fields (above), and brought large scale energy extraction operations into backyards and farms across North America (below). Because of modern fracking, tight-gas sandstone and shale formations across the country have become profitable targets for oil and gas development; even in residential and urban areas where drilling was once considered inconceivable.


Drilling and fracking was one of SkyTruth’s first projects in the early 2000s, using satellite images and aerial photography to reveal the transformation of our western public lands and identify threats to key over-land migration routes. Unconventional drilling and fracking has since spread across North America, including the more populated eastern half of the United States. Media coverage of fracking and fracking-related accidents began to increase. Journalists and academics began to investigate claims that modern fracking had caused health problems and water contamination. Then a documentary filmmaker from Pennsylvania ignited one of the biggest environmental movements in several generations: by lighting water on fire.

“Thanks to John Amos at SkyTruth for creating dazzling images that helped convince the Town of Palisade to get involved with WCC to protect its watershed.” – Matt Sura, Western Colorado Congress

Today, SkyTruth continues to document the visible impacts of unconventional drilling and fracking, using the view-from-above to depict the size and impact of well pads, holding ponds, roads, pipelines, and processing infrastructure up close, and also producing maps, images, videos and simulations to display the enormity of the bigger picture – entire landscapes transformed by development over multiple years. However, many public health and environmental impacts cannot be seen either from the air or by satellite, but digital mapping and timely access to geospatial information about drilling and fracking can better inform the public, scientific research, and policy-makers, ensuring that public and environmental health risks are recognized in all regulations and decisions about unconventional drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

SkyTruth Tools and Resources on Unconventional Drilling and Fracking:

FrackFinder: Help us identify the progress of unconventional gas drilling over multiple years through our pilot crowdsourcing effort. Use imagery from USDA aerial surveys flown over the past eight years to identify when and where drilling has taken place and see for yourself the transformation of fields and forests in the Marcellus Shale. Part of our skytruthing initiative.

SkyTruth Alerts: A real-time feed of nation-wide pollution incidents and (in select states) notification of drilling permits/activity and violation reports. See alerts.skytruth.org for more detail.

Fracking Chemical Disclosures: SkyTruth has complied a database of over 40,000 fracking chemical disclosure reports submitted by oil and gas drillers to an industry-funded website. For researchers, concerned citizens, and policy-makers seeking to study the aggregate impact of water consumption, chemical use, use of trade-secret exemptions, and more.

SkyTruth Blog: Our latest articles and resources on fracking issues.

SkyTruth enthusiastically supports citizen engagement through providing scientifically credible data and resources, timely notification of pollution incidents and proposed development, and technical support of the growing grassroots citizen science monitoring movement. Use these tools and resources to learn more about fracking and find your local watershed organization, conservation group, and the like to get engaged locally. If you have access to data we can map or analyze, or know of a way we can help improve understanding and monitoring of this issue, contact us. SkyTruth is always looking for new ways to engage with and motivate the public to take action to protect the environment.


Prompted by statements from pro-fracking sources that over 99.5%  of fracking fluid is harmless water and sand, we created this simulation to see what the .5% of chemicals would look like next to the fictional “Frack Family” and their average sized house. Want to know what’s in the red barrels? Read the full story on our blog.