Other than toxic air, earthquakes and explosive oil, what’s so bad about fracking?


There are reports that the federal government is thinking about allowing the export of American oil again. The U.S. used to be a large oil exporter, decades ago, but that stopped in 1973 as crude production on domestic soil reached a peak and an Arab oil embargo threatened our economy. But then came fracking, which has been a game changer for producing oil and natural gas, from Pennsylvania to North Dakota to my home state of Louisiana. The United States is experiencing an oil boom!

What’s not to like?

What about the environmental price we’re paying, for going deep into shale formations and yanking out oil and natural gas that was once thought unattainable, in communities where homeowners never expected to live in the shadows of a giant drilling platform. Consider Pennsylvania, one of the first states to be turned upside down by the fracking boom, where officials recently tested the air inside — that’s right, inside — the homes of rural residents who live near fracking sites:

Levels of particulate matter spike at night inside homes near gas wells in Southwest Pennsylvania, the director of an environmental health monitoring project said Wednesday.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP) has been conducting a “pretty aggressive” indoor air monitoring project since 2011 in the midst of Pennsylvania’s gas drilling boom, particularly near unconventional wells that employed hydraulic fracturing, project director Reina Ripple said in a webinar hosted by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The project has documented sudden increases in particulate matter within homes, she said. “These are really significant spikes in particulate matter, and a lot of the time they do happen at night,” Ripple said. The spikes may last three to four hours, and they cannot be explained by typical household activities like cooking, Ripple said.

It should be noted that the environmental group conducting this study are the same folks whose work has so far found 27 cases of skin, nerve, breathing or eye problems in Pennsylvanians who live near fracking sites. Despite that, state officials — under the leadership of pro-fracking Republican Gov. Tom Corbett — have done little to regulate fracking or take these concerns more seriously.

What about the increased risk of earthquakes? Surely officials would do something about that.

Another concern is whether injection well operators could be pumping either too much water into the ground or pumping it at exceedingly high pressures.

In recent weeks, nighttime shaking in Oklahoma City has been strong enough to wake residents. The state experienced 145 quakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater between January and May 2, 2014, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey. That compares with an average of two such quakes from 1978 to 2008.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin approved new testing and monitoring rules for injection wells that require well operators to collect daily information on well volume and pressure, instead of monthly. The rules take effect in September, Skinner said.

Southern Methodist University researchers have recorded more than 300 quakes around Azle (in Texas) since early December, with some days experiencing swarms of hundreds of microquakes and other days none. The geophysicists are measuring the earthquakes to plot out an ancient fault line and are developing models that look at how fluids flow through the layer of rock where the quakes are originating.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just the process of fracking, which is prone not only to high levels of air pollution and to earthquakes but also radioactive wastewater and other health hazards. There’s increasing evidence that the oil itself produced from fracking — especially as that oil is brought to market, most typically by rail — is volatile and dangerous:

 Millions of barrels of crude oil flowing from shale formations around the country—not just North Dakota—are full of volatile gases that make it tricky to transport and to process into fuel.

Oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale field has already been identified as combustible by investigators looking into explosions that followed train derailments in the past year.

But high gas levels also are affecting oil pumped from the Niobrara Shale in Colorado and the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin in Texas, energy executives and experts say.

Even the refineries reaping big profits from the new oil, which is known as ultralight, are starting to complain about how hard it is to handle with existing equipment.

Indeed, it is the abundance of this so-called “ultralight” oil, which is threatening a large drop in prices, and which is what has the government and some oil producers talking about resuming oil exports overseas to keep the price high. But think about that for a moment. They want to put more pollutants into the air people are breathing, and put U.S. citizens are at greater risk of an earthquake or the explosion of an “oil bomb” train, all so that some oil millionaires and billionaires can make a few additional dollars powering China or India.

That’s not right. America needs to be looking at ways we can reduce our dependence on high-risk, environmentally unsound fracking — through smarter use of renewable energy sources. Sending oil overseas is no reason for a victory dance.

To learn more about moves that would allow American producers to ship oil overseas, check out: http://www.marketplace.org/topics/sustainability/future-oil

Here is the report on indoor air pollution from fracking near homes in Pennsylvania: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2014/06/26/air-pollution-spikes-in-homes-near-fracking-wells/

Read more from the Guardian about earthquakes plaguing Oklahoma, Texas and other heavily fracked states: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/26/earthquakes-texas-oklahoma-fracking

Learn more about why oil and gas from fracking is more volatile from the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/articles/oil-from-u-s-fracking-is-more-volatile-than-expected-1403653344

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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