Fracking America: We All Bear the High Cost of 'Cheap' Natural Gas

An apparent fracking operation in Washington County, Pennsylvania

Three men, dressed in rumbled jeans, wrinkled T-shirts, and mud-stained boots, worked their phones in a hotel lobby in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. They were coordinating workers and material across a number of different job sites, and during a pause in their rapid-fire conversations they started taking about the pristine quality of the local waters, the gurgling brooks and gushing streams that pour into the Delaware River on its long run to the Atlantic. It was so unlike their native Louisiana bayous and creeks, now ruined by the toxic effluent from oil rigs, gas wells, and flaring refineries. "I get why folks are fighting up here," one said. "You can see clear to the bottom."

The fight to which he referred was the intense political struggle emerging along the Marcellus Formation, an extensive shale structure that runs underneath the Allegheny Plateau, from the Finger Lakes region in New York State south through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia.

Although that seems like a long way from California, it's not. Similar shale formations exist here and are believed to contain major reserves of oil and natural gas. So what is happening in the mid-Atlantic region is a foreshadowing of what is to come in the Golden State.

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Pay close attention, then, to the Marcellus Formation. Estimated to containing anywhere between 250-500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, "Marcellus Shale represents a...supply that could meet America's energy needs for the next 50-80 years or more." So John W. Ubinger, Jr. of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council told the U. S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works in mid-April. This astronomical quantity is what brought the three men to that hotel lobby, and why they form a part of a larger army of those seeking to tap these deep, fluid riches.

Not everyone is convinced this prospect is an unalloyed good. A determined group of parents and the elderly, young activists and politicians have been organizing to protect their rivers and aquifers from the noxious by-products of the relatively new technique for gas extraction being used in the Marcellus called hydraulic fracturing--fracking for short.

To crack open the shale and release the natural gas trapped within, companies such as Oklahoma-based Devon Energy and Chesapeake Energy ("America's Champion of Natural Gas") and drill deep into the rocky formations, inject a sand-water-and-chemical-laced fluid at high pressure to fracture the rock, allowing gas molecules to flow to the wellhead.

However efficient the process; despite the fact that these gas goliaths are touting this fossil fuel as "clean energy"; and notwithstanding that they are wrapping their actions in the flag (fracking = energy independence = patriotism), fracking could not be more dirty.

Its environmental ramifications are the shocking subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland," which exposes fracking's impact on communities across the United States. A key visual: interviewee after interview turns on the kitchen tap, flicks a lighter, and then watches as the flowing water explodes into flame. No amount of corporate greenwashing can scrub away that unsettling, alchemic image from the public's eye.

The New York Times followed up on the film's success with an in-depth examination of the situation confronting the state it dubbed "Ground Zero"--Pennsylvania. Outspent and out-maneuvered, its regulators are flagging: "We simply cannot keep up," an official confessed. "There's just too much of the waste." The U. S. Congress has not helped, and the Times exposé details its embarrassing failure to act on the reams of evidence implicating fracking in the tainting of groundwater supplies in Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and a host of other states, east and west.

It also pointed out--as does Gasland--that the nation's premiere legislation on water quality, the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), actually exempted many of the materials and toxins used in fracking from federal oversight. The exemption was a result of energy-state representatives ramming through an amendment to the act [section 142(d)] in 2005 that explicitly provided such protective cover. No wonder the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has been unable to crack down on this dangerous technology.

In the resulting political vacuum, mom-and-pop groups have formed up and down the Allegheny Plateau--and across the intermountain west--to force the question on their state legislatures. They have made no headway in West Virginia, and the outcome is little better in Pennsylvania, where 1446 wells already have been drilled; this past year, the Keystone State issued another 3314 permits; for an astute analysis of the differing dynamics of protest and accommodation in these two states, click here.

The one political success has occurred in New York, where state legislators have banned fracking altogether. That's a good first step, but a state-by-state strategy will not win the day. As with other reform movements in U. S. history--antislavery, women's suffrage, and civil-rights--such local agitation must be accompanied with national legislative action; bottom-up pressure must fuse with top-down force.

Enter California's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. In the last session of Congress they co-sponsored the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which, as Boxer points out in a recent letter to constituents, "would have amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to repeal such exemptions for fracking. The FRAC Act would have required oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the process."

This latter requirement is a crucial; without complete disclosure from this unusually secretive industry, neither the EPA not the public can accurately determine fracking's carcinogenic potential, the degree to which its use already has polluted America's ground- and surface-water supplies, or how much this pollution has compromised our health and welfare.

Although this initial legislation did not pass, the duo are co-sponsoring a similar version of the FRAC Act (S. 587) during this session, and it has been referred to the Boxer-chaired Senate Committee on the Environment. The California House delegation has been just as out-front in its support of a companion bill, H.R. 1084, among them Southland Democrats Berman, Napolitano, and Filner.

These Californians' support is not simply a sympathetic gesture for those elsewhere who are currently wrestling with the consequences of fracking. The battle here is about to be joined.

The first shot already has been fired. Last September, the Monterey County zoning administrator signed off on a permit for Venoco, a Colorado outfit, to employ fracking techniques to drill nine exploratory oil wells in Hames Valley in the county's southern reach. Immediately appealing the decision was the Vetana Conservation and Land Trust; the dispute awaits resolution.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management has admitted that an oil company, which it refuses to identify, has expressed interest in leasing more than 2000 acres of federal land over the same shale formation.

Then came news early this May that Venoco has been fracking on two wells located on private land in northern Santa Barbara County. When county supervisors there, like their colleagues in Monterey, tried to secure information about the process from the company--"This issue has been in the news a lot lately," noted supervisor Doreen Farr, "and I think a simple information presentation would be beneficial to both the board and the public"--Venoco stonewalled.

Expect more such flipping off democratic procedures, more cavalier dismissals of the public's right to know, as other oil-and-gas conglomerates utilize fracking in a mad-dash effort to flush fossil fuels out of deep shale deposits in California.

They will get away with it, too, unless local authorities, state legislators, and Congress are able to empower relevant agencies with suitable regulations to rein in these out-of-control corporations and their ruinous technology. If not, then this state's unspoiled waterways and clean aquifers will become as compromised as those in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Marcellus Protest. it was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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This is a very amatuerish commentary on a complex topic. The author treats the problem as an ideological one, using emotional terms ("flipping off") in reference to the oil industry, and referencing a junk scientist, Josh Fox, who has no experience or expertise in well completion technology. But despite Fox's lack of expertise, the author cites Gasland as a reputable source anyway: "No amount of corporate greenwashing can scrub away that unsettling, alchemic image from the public's eye."

I suppose no amount of facts could have any impact on an ideological writer, but the State of Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has refuted Fox's widely cited burning faucets as a misrepresentation of the facts. The gas in this case was analyzed and determined to be biogenic in origin, not thermally sourced, as Mr. Miller uncritically accepts. Who knows what other liberties Fox took to sell his film or vent his ideological frustrations? Perhaps he felt that the ends justified the means. There are other examples of misrepresentation.

This is an important issue with much at stake: jobs, state and government revenues, a possible cleaner energy source, and with implications on US energy policy and possibly even trade balance. Therefore, determination of the risks to aquifers demands serious investigation, not junk science or ideological musings. Questions need to be asked, and answered, in a cool-headed, scientific way.

We need to consider technical details of fracture stimulation processes, such as
- what are the dimensions of the fractures, in length and width, and how do those dimensions relate to the depth of the reservoirs?
- what are the physical characteristics of the rocks overlying the reservoirs? Are they brittle or ductile? Will fractures propagate very far through them?
- where will required water volumes come from, and how will this water be disposed of?
- how is the wellbore protected, what tests are undertaken, what kind of cement and/or pipe is used?

We need to consider the risks, such as
- what chemicals are being injected, exactly, and what impact might they have in the subsurface? In aquifers?
- how many wells have been fracked, and what percentage have actually been documented as polluting aquifers? What is the probability of failure based on historical observations?

If there are documented cases of aquifer contamination, how can we characterize them, and are there mitigating steps we can take?
- were they caused by operator error?
- are they preventable with better equipment/better regulations/better engineering?
- how likely would such failures be if above improvements were implemented?

Mr. Miller seems to be uninterested in such questions, preferring to go straight to the politically correct conclusions. His portrayal of the risks and danger may in fact be correct, but it will take expertise and much work to properly assess the costs and benefits, and risks, of fracture stimulation, and whether any damage can be documented and/or is avoidable. Although it is proper to voice concern, uninformed and biased commenters like Mr. Miller and Mr. Fox have no role in this debate. If there is a problem, we need real science.

In closing, it's worth reading this release from May 24, 2011:

"The head of the Environmental Protection Agency [Lisa Jackson] told a House committee Tuesday that she favored natural gas production and said she didn't know of any “proven case” in which hydraulic fracturing had affected drinking water."

Please, Mr. Miller. We already have enough junk science in the form of climate change denial. Let's not add to the subjugation of science to ideology by writing poorly considered articles like these. Let's not leave issues of national importance to be decided by the jury of political correctness. Let's get to the heart of the matter, what's really happening in the subsurface. Are you really interested in finding out, or are you content to accept Josh Fox at face value?