By: Bob Sheak
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Sandra Steingraber, biologist, author, poet, describes what we have been identifying as the horizontal hydraulic fracturing process as clearly as you’ll find in most sources. Steingraber takes up the topic in the final chapter of her new book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Her acclaimed earlier book Living Downstream was published in 1998 and is now available in its second edition. She lives near Ithaca, New York and is particularly concerned about what she calls “High-Volume Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing,” or fracking as many of us have come to know it.
Steingraber and others supported New York state’s moratorium on fracking. However, the moratorium will soon end, but not without comprehensive regulation. According to a New York Time’s article by Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore titled “Cuoma Will Seek to Lift the Ban on Hydraulic Fracturing” (6-30-11), the final version of the state law is expected in some months to have strict regulations that limit where drilling and fracking can be done and will require public knowledge of the chemicals being used. But, by the end of the year, there will be fracking in the state of New York.
Steingraber considers in her book scores of environmental dangers, focusing on how they endanger the health of our children. Her discussion of the toxic health effects of fracking is only one small, but significant, part of her overall analysis.
She has useful discussions of the origin and present size of the Marcellus shale formation, which extends through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia as well as New York. She points out that the Marcellus Shale contains “the largest natural gas deposit in the United States” (270). And she offers a vivid description of the technology and fracking process.
“Using this method, a drill bores down until it intersects with the shale, turns sideways, and continues horizontally for up to a mile or more. Steel pipe, some portions of which are encased by cement, is laid in the borehole. Explosives are detonated along the horizontal pipe to perforate it and then, under enormous pressure, a slurry of water, sand, and chemicals is forced into the rock, fracturing it and opening preexisting fractures, known as ‘joints.’ The grains of sand (or glass beads or epoxy) hold the cracks open. The chemicals – and there are hundreds for drillers to choose from – serve several purposes. Most notably, they reduce friction (thus the term slickwater) so that the fracking fluid can flow easily. In addition, the mixture includes acids, rust and scale inhibitors, and pesticides to kill microbes. Sometimes it includes gelling agents, petroleum distillates, glycol ethers, formaldehyde, and toluene.
“And up the borehole flows the gas. The cocktail of water and chemicals forced into the fractured shale also flows back up. But not all of it. Some 40 to 70 percent stays behind in the rubble
“Fracturing deep bedrock is not a gentle process. Exerting up to 10,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, fracking has been compared to smashing a windshield with a baseball bat. A single fracking operation requires an access road, 2 to 8 million gallons of fresh water, between 10,000 and 40,000 gallons of chemicals, and at least 1,000 diesel truck trips. Between 34,000 and 95,000 wells are envisioned for New York State, with 77,000 likely” (270-271).
Steingraber later in the book identifies five generalizations that with certainty can be drawn from the existing research on fracking. That is, these generalizations, she argues, cannot be reasonably contested. As you read through four of these generalizations, think about how gas corporations, their lobbyists and their political allies would respond. Would they be at a loss for how to respond? Hardly. But they may dominate the media and political institutions to advance their pro-fracking positions.
First, Steingraber writes that fracking always transforms the local ecology. In New York, it will affect areas where there are farms, vineyards and unbroken forests, as “well pads, roads and pipelines are constructed in fields and pastures.” Trees will be cut. Wetlands and woodlands will be fragmented, limiting their capacity “to provide habitat for wildlife, filter ran water, and prevent flooding.” Further, “Even before the actual fracking begins, the erosion and run-off of deforestation and road construction will invariably send sediment into streams, threatening invertebrates, amphibians, and fish.” Certain bird species will be threatened by the ecological upheaval caused by fracking, including for example “seven species of warblers” and various migratory birds.
Ask yourself whether there is evidence to counter this generalization, that is, there is “always” harmful ecological transformation from the fracking process.
Second, fracking brings air pollution common to cities to the rural countryside. Her point is summed up in the following two sentences on how virtually every aspect of fracking generates one or another kind of pollution or ecological degradation: “…emissions accompany every stage of the gas extraction process from clearing timber to building well pads and hauling away toxic flowback fluid. Drilling, fracking, and gas production require generators, pumps, compressors, drilling rigs, condensate tanks, and endless fleets of diesel trucks” (273).
Ask yourself, whether emissions can be diminished or eliminated in this process. The gas industry and its trade associations contend that the process is mostly clean and safe.
Third, accidents are inevitable. She writes accidents occur “during industrial activities involving explosive vapors….[when] Gas pockets explode. [when] Blowout protectors fail [remember BP’s Deepwater Horizon].” Accidents result from chemical spills, when trucks hauling toxic liquid crash, when holding ponds and waste pits leak and when sludge tank walls collapse…”
Ask yourself whether accidents from the fracking process can be prevented all of the time, most of the time, typically, some of the time, rarely, or never. “Inevitably”?
Fourth, the fracking process “makes water disappear,” as she describes:
“When a single well is fracked, several million gallons of fresh water are removed from lakes, streams, or groundwater aquifers and are entombed in deep geological strata, up to a mile or more below the water table. Once there, this water is, very likely, removed from the water cycle permanently.” (275)
The industry does require huge amounts of water for fracking. Where does the water come from and how much of it “disappears”? Do we have lots of water to spare?
Steingraber continues her analysis of fracking by pointing out that there are other important issues that have not been resolved with as much “certainty” as in the previous points. She considers seven such issues.
#1 – Fracking may contaminate groundwater, depending on what is meant by fracking. She writes: “if fracking refers to the whole operation – from clearing the land to evaporation from holding ponds – there are many documented cases of water contamination with compounds associated with gas development – including the carcinogen, benzene. Their likely sources are mostly located on the surface of the earth: from pits that hold flowback fluid, from leaking tanks, from leaking wellheads, from spills” (275). Below ground, “everything depends upon the integrity of the steel-and-cement-encased wells themselves, which bisect aquifers on their way down to the shale below.” She describes the example of Pavillion, Wyoming, where petrochemicals were found in 20 water wells. The film Gasland provides other examples, among other sources.
Why is this issue not fully resolved? It’s often difficult to demonstrate conclusively that the contamination of ground water comes from the fracking process or the waste water it produces. There are other sources of groundwater contamination, including naturally occurring methane gas, chemical fertilizers from farms and acid runoff and other toxins from earlier coal mining operations (276-277). What does the evidence show?
#2 – Fracking is not well regulated and “enjoys special exemption from a whole raft of regulations,” including the “Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Act, National Environmental Policy Act,” a special exemption from the 2005 Energy Policy Act that allows gas companies to keep secret the chemicals used in fracking as well as “the chemicals found in the flowback water.” She points out, “When the fluid comes back out of the well, it carries with it the same chemicals it carried in – together with substances that, for the past 400 million years, had been safely locked up a mile below us” (278). In short, the lack of government regulation keeps the government and public from having evidence that would more definitively determine the components of fracking fluid and wastewater.
Government regulation is always tricky. The enactment of regulation is not easy. But then the details of regulations have to be written, often outside the view of the public. And government agencies have to be funded to enforce the regulation. At all of these stages, regulation is often weakened. Does Ohio have a regulation that requires corporations engaged in the fracking process to reveal the components of the fracking fluid and wastewater? How good is the regulation? In Ohio, for example, there is reason to wonder whether there will be a sufficient number of inspectors, even if there is such a regulation.
#3 – No one knows how much gas is recoverable from a given well, which raises questions for landowners expecting years of royalties from leasing their land to gas corporations and questions for taxpayers about our energy policies.
What are the estimates of recoverable shale gas in the Marcellus Shale or even in just the Ohio part of it based on?
There is good reason to go along with Steingraber on the next two issues as being not fully resolved or mostly resolved. Does the gas industry, its supporters, federal or state regulators have strong, or any, evidence to determine the “cumulative impact of fracking on public health or agriculture?
#4 – “No study of the cumulative impact of fracking on public health or agriculture has ever been conducted” (280).
#5 – There has been “no comprehensive, life-cycle analysis of natural gas” and “the full range of its greenhouse gas emissions” (280)
The last two issues touched on by Steingraber refer to the future. But what about past and present government policies and their effects? Is there evidence regarding present and recent-past government policies that challenge the idea that support for renewable energy has been reduced or is being reduced as the drilling for shale gas goes up?
#6 – Investments in gas drilling is spurred, while investments in renewable energy is slowed.
#7 – Renewables can be a viable alternative to gas and the other fossil fuels. Steingraber offers this quote: “Recent studies indicate the US and world could rely 100 percent on green energy sources within 20 years if we dedicated ourselves to that course” (282). However, her point here is hardly conclusively demonstrated.
Steingraber has not touched on all the issues, but she has helped to identify many of the issues that are of concern.
Consider the following examples of industry arguments for going full-speed ahead on fracking. They argue that natural gas from fracking is environmentally cleaner than coal or oil and that it is less expensive and risky than nuclear energy. We need it, they maintain, if we are going to grow economically and maintain our present standards of living. They argue that by mining the Marcellus Shale, the country will be freed from its dependence on foreign oil. They argue that such mining will create jobs and tax revenues. They argue that, in time, natural gas can replace oil/gasoline in transportation and in electricity generation. They argue that all this can happen if the federal and state governments does not over-regulate – because the private-sector knows best and government never gets it right.
Whether any of industry’s arguments are supportable or not – Steingraber would say “not” – our continuing reliance on any kind of fossil fuel, domestic or foreign, will further increase climate change – and that not good.