Don’t Frack with Our Water!

Natural gas drilling threatens public health and the environment.

Polly Howells October 4, 2009

A wastewater pond from a hydrofracked horizontal well in Springville, Pa. Exxon recently paid an $85,000 fine for the deaths of migratory birds that landed in similar ponds.(Photo by: Helen Slottje)

As the rush to locate new reserves of dimin­ish­ing domes­tic fos­sil fuels inten­si­fies, gas com­pa­nies have returned to the scene where America’s Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion began 150 years ago: the oil fields of west­ern Pennsylvania. 

In 2005, when former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney was vice president, Congress passed the Halliburton Loophole—a law exempting oil and gas companies from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The prob­lem is that the so-called nat­ur­al gas these com­pa­nies extract is not as acces­si­ble as that orig­i­nal oil was: It is embed­ded 6,000 to 9,000 feet beneath the earth in a rock stra­tum 50- to 100-feet thick known as the Mar­cel­lus Shale. Laid down dur­ing the Devon­ian geo­log­ic peri­od – 350 to 400 mil­lion years ago – the Mar­cel­lus Shale runs from Ohio and West Vir­ginia east through Penn­syl­va­nia, the south­ern tier of New York and the Catskill Mountains. 

The gas com­pa­nies have devel­oped a con­tro­ver­sial extrac­tion process known as hydraulic frac­tur­ing, com­mon­ly known as hydrofrack­ing, or frack­ing. Using this tech­nique, they can pen­e­trate the depths of the Mar­cel­lus Shale and extract methane gas. Argu­ments over the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits of this method and its envi­ron­men­tal costs have bit­ter­ly divid­ed many com­mu­ni­ties in New York, a state still in the process of devel­op­ing its stance toward gas developers.

Frack­ing well

To frack one well, the gas com­pa­ny pumps in 3 to 9 mil­lion gal­lons of water at extreme­ly high pres­sure. The water, mixed with chem­i­cals and sand, trav­els ver­ti­cal­ly through a pipe and then is forced hor­i­zon­tal­ly into the black shale lay­er. These frack­ing flu­ids – the exact ingre­di­ents of which the com­pa­nies won’t divulge, say­ing they are a trade secret – are nec­es­sary to keep the sand in sus­pen­sion, so that when the shale cracks – the goal of the process – the sand par­ti­cles can wedge open the faults, enabling the drillers to extract the embed­ded methane gas. 

As recent­ly as 2002, the gas reserves in the Mar­cel­lus Shale were esti­mat­ed at 1.9 tril­lion cubic feet. In 2008, geol­o­gists recal­cu­lat­ed the Mar­cel­lus resource at 500 tril­lion cubic feet, 10 per­cent of which was deemed recov­er­able by these new hydraulic frac­tur­ing meth­ods. That would be enough to sup­ply 20 years’ worth of the entire U.S. demand for nat­ur­al gas, with a well­head val­ue of $1 tril­lion. After receiv­ing this news, the oil and gas cor­po­ra­tions rushed to con­vince those who own land over the Mar­cel­lus shale to lease their min­er­al rights. The price offered per acre has jumped from $200 to $3,500 in some cas­es, with promised poten­tial roy­al­ties reach­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars per year.

The stakes are high. But so are the dan­gers, as war sto­ries emerge from the states where frack­ing is in com­mon use. Accord­ing to the com­pa­nies, the chem­i­cal­ly treat­ed frack flu­ids” can be retrieved and treat­ed in safe stor­age tanks – but gen­er­al­ly they are left in open, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed ponds. 

Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing sto­ries, among hun­dreds, of the envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems that have result­ed from hydrofracked gas wells.

In April 2009, in north­west Louisiana, 17 cat­tle died with­in an hour after drink­ing frac” water that had entered their pas­ture. The Chesa­peake Ener­gy Com­pa­ny admit­ted its pipes had leaked salt water” into the field, but did not acknowl­edge that its lethal trade secret” chem­i­cals were dis­solved in the water. In a tac­it admis­sion of guilt, the com­pa­ny com­pen­sat­ed the farmer for his losses. 

In Garfield Coun­ty, Colo., Lau­ra Amos, a wife and moth­er, con­tract­ed a rare adren­al dis­ease, pri­ma­ry hyper-aldos­tero­nism. Two years ear­li­er, gas com­pa­ny EnCana hydrofract­ed a gas well less than 1,000 feet from her house that acci­den­tal­ly con­nect­ed with her water well and blew it up.” She says her well erupt­ed like a geyser,” and the water in her house became gray, bub­bly, smelly and test­ed pos­i­tive for methane. The Col­orado Oil and Gas Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion assured her that this amount of dis­solved methane was tran­sient” and per­fect­ly safe. 

A year after her mys­te­ri­ous diag­no­sis, she dis­cov­ered the research of zool­o­gist Theo Col­burn, who has exam­ined the chem­i­cals in water around hydrofracked wells and iden­ti­fied one of the ingre­di­ents in the frack­ing flu­ids as 2‑butoxyethanol (2‑BE), a com­pound that can stay in the ground for years and eas­i­ly leach into ground­wa­ter. Among the many dis­eases it can cause are malig­nant and non-malig­nant tumors of the adren­al gland, which is what Lau­ra Amos had. Col­burn, the pres­i­dent of the Endocrine Dis­rup­tion Exchange, (www​.endocrinedis​rup​tion​.com), has become an indis­pens­able source for those sus­pect­ing tox­ic health effects from near­by gas wells. 

In the Fort Worth, Texas area, hydrofrack­ing has result­ed in more than a dozen small earth­quakes since Octo­ber 2008. This August, the Chesa­peake Ener­gy Cor­po­ra­tion admit­ted com­plic­i­ty in the quakes, claim­ing they are not con­nect­ed to the drilling or frac­tur­ing process­es, but that there is a pos­si­ble cor­re­la­tion” between the quakes and a salt­wa­ter dis­pos­al well on the south­ern end of Dal­las-Fort Worth Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. The air­port sits atop a fault line. 

The Hal­libur­ton Loophole

Texas has more nat­ur­al gas wells than any state in the union – 76,436, to be exact. Texas-based Hal­libur­ton is a com­pa­ny that has been involved in the hydrofrack­ing busi­ness since it pio­neered the tech­nol­o­gy back in the 1940s. Hal­libur­ton is one of three com­pa­nies that has patent­ed – and kept secret – the chem­i­cals in the frack­ing flu­ids. In 2005, when for­mer Hal­libur­ton CEO Dick Cheney was vice pres­i­dent, Con­gress passed the Ener­gy Pol­i­cy Act, which exempt­ed the oil and gas com­pa­nies from hav­ing to abide by the pro­vi­sions of the Safe Drink­ing Water Act, in place since the 1970s. This bill has come to be known as the Hal­libur­ton Loophole.

In Octo­ber 2008, Rep. Diana DeGette (D‑Colo.), Rep. John Salazar (D‑Colo.) and Rep. Mau­rice Hinchey (D‑N.Y.) intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to close the Hal­libur­ton Loop­hole. In June 2009, two addi­tion­al bills, known as the FRAC Act, were intro­duced in Con­gress – H.R. 2766, spon­sored by DeGette and Hinchey, and S. 1215, spon­sored by Sen. Bob Casey (D‑Pa.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D‑N.Y.) – to demand that the gas com­pa­nies reveal the chem­i­cals in their frack­ing flu­ids. The gas and oil com­pa­nies are respond­ing with claims that the present state reg­u­la­tions (in most cas­es nonex­is­tent) are ade­quate, and that the costs of fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion would crip­ple their businesses.

In addi­tion to the tox­i­c­i­ty of the frack­ing flu­ids, oth­er envi­ron­men­tal issues con­cern res­i­dents of the towns in which these wells will be drilled: the drain­ing of local aquifers to pro­vide the water that the com­pa­nies pump into the wells; the wear and tear on local roads as heavy trucks make thou­sands of trips to deliv­er this water; noise pol­lu­tion from the pumps oper­at­ing 247 for months at a time; the clear­ing of forests – each drilling pad demands about five acres of cleared land – that sac­ri­fices for­ev­er nat­ur­al spaces that peo­ple and oth­er species so des­per­ate­ly need. More­over, since the Mar­cel­lus Shale is known to be radioac­tive, it is like­ly that drilling into this rock lay­er will release radioac­tive ele­ments into the air. The short-term eco­nom­ic gain – all the wells will be emp­tied with­in the next 20 years – mea­sured against the long-term loss­es of life and habi­tat make accel­er­at­ing large-scale gas extrac­tion ill-advised. What’s more, the rush to suck all remain­ing fos­sil fuels out of the earth delays any con­cert­ed effort to tran­si­tion to sus­tain­able sources of energy.

As New York is one of five U.S. cities that is not man­dat­ed to fil­ter its tap water, the poten­tial dan­ger of unreg­u­lat­ed drilling to its drink­ing water is obvi­ous. But it remains an issue under the radar for most New York­ers. In August of 2008, New York City offi­cials asked the state Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion to for­bid gas drilling clos­er than a mile from each of the city’s six major Catskill reser­voirs, cre­at­ing a buffer zone that would put at least half a mil­lion acres off-lim­its to drilling. Oth­er cities and towns in New York State are call­ing for sim­i­lar protections.

One small vic­to­ry for reg­u­la­tion occurred in May 2009, when the Delaware Riv­er Basin Com­mis­sion, rep­re­sent­ing four states and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, ruled that ener­gy com­pa­nies must obtain its approval before begin­ning fur­ther extrac­tion in the Delaware Riv­er basin. With a sym­pa­thet­ic admin­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton, one hopes that this is the begin­ning of a new lev­el of reg­u­la­tion for nat­ur­al gas extrac­tion nationwide. 

Editor’s note: This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly stat­ed that the Mar­cel­lus Shale could pro­vide two years’ worth of U.S. demand for nat­ur­al gas. It could in fact pro­vide 20 years’ worth. We regret the error.

Grass­roots groups work­ing to lim­it drilling in the Mar­cel­lus Shale:
A Fort Worth group
A Film being devel­oped about the nation­wide nat­ur­al gas/​water situation
Pol­ly How­ells is a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times Board of Edi­tors, and a semi-retired psy­chother­a­pist who splits her time between Wood­stock and Brook­lyn, New York.
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