Evidence is rapidly building that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a controversial natural gas drilling technique — is far more dangerous to the environment than the natural gas industry or federal regulators want you to know.
From the Rockies to the Gulf, from the Upper Midwest to Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front there are complaints of fouled wells, stinking air, dead streams, earth tremors, and, in at least one West Virginia case, an entire river gone dry. It’s all part of a frantic rush to tap and drain America’s shale gas fields before meaningful regulations can be enacted to protect drinking water and public health.
Unfortunately, as this American catastrophe unfolds in gas-producing states, Congress does worse than nothing. U.S. legislators have made fracking exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other federal environmental regulations.
Here in West Virginia, the action is centered on the Marcellus shale field — a gas formation stretching along an arc from Kentucky and Ohio, through Pennsylvania into New York. It’s the second biggest gas field in the world, called the American Saudi Arabia, with enough gas to meet U.S. needs for 20 years. Four years ago no one had heard of it.
If the industry can’t extract shale gas without depleting and fouling freshwater, the American public will turn against natural gas.
Today, West Virginia is besieged by gas companies, drillers, and landmen offering hard-to-resist deals. The Alleghenies hasn’t buzzed with prospectors like this since Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville in 1859, igniting the Pennsylvanian Oil Rush.
Politicians are gaga for gas. Many Democrats say it’s greener than coal and oil. For Republicans, gas stays within their fossil-fuel comfort zone and it’s homegrown energy. Even some environmentalists like gas: it generates half the greenhouse emissions of coal and burns cleaner.
But the only way to get to shale gas cost-effectively is hydraulic fracturing — a dirty process. Pioneered by Halliburton, fracking shoots pressurized water, sand, and chemicals down a well to fracture the rock holding the gas. The sand is mixed with special proppants (particles such as resin-coated sand engineered for this purpose) that hold open the fissures so gas can flow back to the surface along with lots of fracking wastewater.
Though industry denies it, fracking has created environmental messes at every major gas play where it’s been used. To begin, it takes about 4 million gallons of water to frack one well. In West Virginia, where the U.S. Department of Energy projects 20,000 wells by the early 2020s, that’s 80 billion of gallons of water from small streams.
The water is sucked from waterways then shipped in by truck. In West Virginia, drillers need only file a form that says where they’ll get the water — not how much they’ll take or what percentage of a stream they’ll drain. Other states have equally weak regulation.
Then there’s the problem of frack water — the public doesn’t know what’s in it, and fracking companies won’t say. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 65 commonly used fracking chemicals are hazardous, including formaldehyde, ammonium chloride, acetic anhydride, methanol, and hydrochloric acid. They cause asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, autoimmune diseases, liver failure, cancer, headaches, nausea, and sleeplessness. Oh, and frack water is flammable. In one case, shown in the film Gasland, water from a homeowner’s faucet ignites on camera.
Now there is evidence that naturally occurring radioactivity, trapped in bedrock, is coming out of the ground along with fracking fluid. But we wouldn’t know much about that if we relied on the EPA. The agency hid studies about radioactive drilling wastewater dumped into America’s waterways, reports The New York Times.
Even U.S. Energy Secretary Ken Salazar, a longtime ally of the gas industry, says fracking could kill the industry, and with it any chance capitalizing on the benefits of gas — including the role of gas in decoupling the United States from foreign oil. Salazar is concerned that if the industry can’t extract shale gas without depleting and fouling freshwater, the American public will turn against natural gas. He may be right.
Already, the city of Pittsburgh has had its water supply compromised by fracking waste in what an EPA internal memo called, “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.”
It’s long past time for Congress to end fracking exemptions to the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s also time to regulate fracking wastewater and protect private property, public health, and freshwater. But with Congress firmly in the grip of natural gas-loving Republicans and Democrats, I don’t hold out much hope for such action.
David Lillard is a Blue Ridge Press editor and owner of The Observer newspaper in Jefferson County, W.Va. To comment go to www.blueridgepress.com.