by Anna Maria Caldara, March 2012
Hydrofracking: Injecting more than a million gallons of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure, as far as 10,000 feet underground, to crack shale and obtain natural gas.
Illusion v. Reality
Natural gas producers are dazzling the American public with the alleged merits of this fossil fuel. The Northeast has been entangled in the craze, with active wells in Pennsylvania and plans for more in New York. Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens claims, “Natural gas is the critical puzzle piece that will help us to keep more of the $350-$450 billion we spend on imported oil every year at home, where it can power our economy and pay for investments in wind energy, a smart grid, and energy efficiency.”
In Hancock, New York, for fifth-generation dairy farmer Brian Begeal, signing a five-year lease with a gas driller yields a more personal benefit. “For me, this lease means retirement,” he says.
But a closer look at the industry and its process of hydrofracking reveals a different story.
Despite new natural gas production, in 2007 the U.S. still imported 16% to meet its domestic needs. Most of this gas arrived from Canada.
Chesapeake Energy, a major investor in the Marcellus Shale (a rock formation present in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York containing up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas), sold a 32% share of its leases in the region to the second-largest Norwegian gas distribution firm, StatoilHydro, in 2009. This indicates that gas extracted from the Marcellus will be globally marketed.
Three new proposals for Natural Gas Marine Transfer Facilities, along the Mid-Atlantic coastline, would supplement an existing New England facility that ships natural gas overseas. The Millenium Pipeline, already in place across the southern tier of New York state, is perceived as a viable way to deliver gas to these transfer sites.
None of these scenarios suggest that increased domestic natural gas production will ease our dependence on foreign oil, or that the U.S. will use the gas drilled within its borders.
Even more disturbing are the situations emerging from Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where almost 2,000 gas wells have been permitted. Swing sets in the yards of residences now share space with “water buffalos.” These temporary water storage tanks are monuments to water wells contaminated by fracking.
Crystal Stroud, age 29, related her experience at a Bradford County Commission meeting in April, 2011. “I, too, believed in the Goose that was going to lay the Golden Egg in Bradford County,” she stated. “I leased my two acres of property for $5000 to Chesapeake. We used the money to start fixing up our house, adding a pool, and thinking we were increasing our property value. Little did I know, we were signing away life as we knew it.”
A month after drilling began near her home, Crystal noticed hair loss. She underwent heart palpitations, stomach cramps, tremors, loss of balance, and slurred speech. Well water test results exposed toxic levels of methane, strontium, chloride, radiological material, and radon.
A water buffalo now looms in Crystal’s yard. Neither of the two closest drillers, Chesapeake and Chief, have taken responsibility for poisoning her well.
How did hydrofracking emerge on such a grand scale, with so few restrictions? After the 1973 oil crisis, the U.S. Department of Energy funded the Eastern Gas Shales project. This multi-state initiative concluded that the most easily accessed reserves of gas had already been extracted. It was not feasible to tap the Marcellus Shale at that time, because the reserves were so deep (at least 8,500 feet), and gas prices did not warrant the effort.
Over thirty years later, with gas prices increasing, Halliburton developed a horizontal drilling technology capable of reaching gas in subsurface geologic formations.
Former Vice-President Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton from 1995-2000. Cheney led the energy lobby to convince Congress to pass the Energy Policy Act. This exempted the gas industry from many federal regulations aimed to protect our air, water, and public health.
Even more recently, the industry has been exempted from a section of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Consequently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot regulate the injection of toxic chemicals underground.
With the staggering amounts of fuel subsidies granted for natural gas exploration, producers are riding the crest of a “free for all.” Gas companies are subsidized even if the wells deliver nothing, and no royalties need to be paid to property owners; taxpayers bear the cost of oil production; taxpayers pay for 70-100% of equipment and supplies; gas distribution is free to the companies; gas companies are subsidized if they lose money on drilling; gas pipelines are practically free, because companies can deduct the cost over a seven year depreciation recovery period.
The Delaware River Basin, which includes watersheds of New York and Pennsylvania, could see 15,000-18,000 wells drilled over the next three decades. In these areas, even more pressure is being applied to accommodate fracking.
The New York Department of Conservation (DEC) has implemented “compulsory integration.” This is in fact land reclamation by the process of eminent domain. Drillers are permitted access to gas that owners do not want to sell. Through the DEC, the state grants gas drillers the right to take the unwilling property owners’ mineral resources. Owners are compensated with a non-negotiable fee.
In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett received $1.5 million for his 2010 gubernatorial campaign from oil, gas, and mining industries. Corbett chose C. Alan Walker, president and CEO of Bradford Energy Company, as his head of Department of Community and Economic Development. He has also ended the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) review of drilling activities on state-owned land. For the sake of private corporate profits, Corbett has dismantled Pennsylvania’s regulatory authority of gas drilling.
The Delaware River and the Marcellus
Natural gas producers have leased over 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania’s public lands, or one-third of the state. In 2010, Pennsylvania approved 6,583 gas permits; 2,755 wells were drilled. DEP violations climbed to 2,486 for that year as a result of methane explosions and chemical spills from fracking.
This degradation occurred despite the Delaware River Basin Commission’s (DRBC) adoption of Special Protection Waters (SPW) regulations. These rules were established to protect existing high water quality areas within the agency’s jurisdiction. The Upper and Middle Delaware were so classified in 1992. In 2008, the DRBC approved the Lower Delaware (from the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to the head of tide in Trenton, New Jersey) with SPW, adding a classification of Significant Resource Waters.
Daily, almost nine billion gallons of water are consumed in the Delaware River Basin by about 16,000,000 people. One in twenty Americans is connected to the water supplied by the Delaware River, as are untold numbers of wildlife, and vegetation.
Four states share this precious resource: Delaware, with 81.4% of its population served by the river; Pennsylvania, with 42%; New York, with 35%, and New Jersey, with 34%.
Although the DRBC has placed a moratorium on gas exploration for our watershed, it has also solicited public comment as a gauge for future activity. The agency is considering the regulation of fracking in our biologically diverse homeland.
Fracking is ruinous to living systems at every stage.
Forest clearing is necessary for construction of the well pad. Five acres is the average size of a drilling site. One acre can sustain 700 trees, according to the Energy Act of 1992; therefore, about 3,500 trees are cut for each pad. (The Colorado River supplies water to 30,000,000 people. Gas drilling is so prevalent along both sides that one well pad now crowns every 10 acres in Colorado and Wyoming.)
Methane, the largest component of natural gas, escapes in large quantities during fracking and over the lifespan of the well (5-30 years.) A highly flammable substance, it accumulates in the air. In 2004, a home near a well pad in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, exploded, killing three people. Wells have also exploded, and tap water ignited. Additionally, global warming potential for methane is much greater than carbon or sulfur dioxides.
Ground-level ozone is created on-site by massive diesel engines that power fracking equipment. Ozone plumes weaken trees, burn leaves, threaten freshwater replenishment, and cause pulmonary disorders.
Fracking is suspected in the lowering of water tables in southern Texas, a region prone to drought. Whereas one million gallons is the amount of water needed for an “average” frack, each well can be fracked ten times. In Pennsylvania, 2.5-3.4 million gallons is the norm for one well. (“Streams Drained Dry by Drillers”
was a WTAE.com 2008 news report in Pittsburgh.)
Over a 12-month period, six million barrels of fracking waste were generated by Cabot Oil and Gas in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. More than 44,000 barrels of this wastewater were siphoned through a sewage plant in Hatfield Township. This toxic chemical mixture was then released into the Neshaminy Creek, which empties into the Delaware below Easton, Pennsylvania and Phillipsburg, New Jersey. (Pennsylvania is the only state that allows its waterways to serve as the gas industry’s prime disposal areas.)
Dr. Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst and expert on endocrine disruptors, has noted that a standard horizontal frack could contain from 15,000-60,000 gallons of chemicals. Spills and leaks occur during transport and on-site. Of the 278 chemicals she was able to identify from the western slope of the Colorado River, 43% were endocrine disruptors. Among the biocides and polymers gas producers employ, Dr. Colborn has labeled 38% as carcinogenic, 78% as affecting the brain and nervous system; 95% irritable to eyes and skin; and 40% composition unknown. If the well being fracked is situated in a karstic locale, such as New York state, tainted groundwater can move quickly into potable water sources.
Are the disastrous effects of fracking worth the 2-20 year supply of gas the Marcellus shale may provide?
James Northrup, an energy dealer for three decades, describes horizontal fracking as similar to “the explosion of a massive pipe bomb underground.” Because the horizontal drill proceeds sideways into the Marcellus shale, more fracturing is created than with vertical drilling. Intersecting with natural faults and fissures, myriads of avenues become available for toxic chemicals and natural gas to permeate aquifers.
Representing the last desperate attempt of corporations to “cash in” on fossil fuel, fracking is poisoning that which makes life possible: water.
Grassroots Efforts in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania
New Jersey, with no Marcellus Shale deposits, has no fracking wells. However, residents remain concerned about how their drinking water will be affected by upriver fracking. In August 2011, Governor Christie, after vetoing the legislature’s ban on fracking, issued a one-year moratorium on the practice.
In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh was the first U.S. city to pass a Rights of Nature ordinance (“Ecosystems have the right to exist, persist, regenerate, and evolve. Corporations do not have Constitutional rights.”) and to ban fracking. In January 2011, Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to refuse to buy natural gas obtained by fracking. These local efforts are being challenged by a Pennsylvania law, passed in February 2012, that prevents local governments from regulating fracking. The law also imposes a local impact fee on natural gas drilling and establishes new state regulations on the growing industry.
In New York, a moratorium on fracking has expired, although their Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has halted new shale gas wells since 2008, when it began an environmental impact review. New regulations from the DEC are expected to be in place this in 2012.Meanwhile, the town of Dryden’s ban on fracking was upheld in New York Supreme Court (the state’s trial court level) in February, 2012. Over a dozen communities are applying for the same consideration.
Also in New York, Exxon Mobil’s XTO Energy applied for a water withdrawal of up to 250,000 gallons per day from the Oquaga Creek, a move that would help them develop nearby gas wells. The creek is a native trout stream that flows to the west branch of the Delaware River. Citizen outcry at the May 11, 2011 vote forced the DRBC to table the request and promise a public hearing.
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