The case against fracking
Austin Stateman | Sharon Wilson
August 11, 2012
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The coupling of two old technologies, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, has fueled a national drilling boom. Nationwide, residents living near fracked gas wells have filed more than 1,000 complaints of tainted water, severe illnesses, livestock deaths, and fish kills. Complaints, sometimes involving hundreds of households, have risen in tandem with a veritable gold rush of natural gas wells — now numbering about 493,000 across 31 states. It is also fueling opposition — even in a state known for supporting the oil and gas industry — that grows in direct proportion to drilling expansion.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces millions of gallons of chemical-laden water and thousands of pounds of sand deep underground at extremely high pressure to crack dense shale and release oil and gas trapped below.
While fracking has been used for decades in oil and gas drilling, the industry's reassurance that fracking is an established technology with a proven safety record is intentionally misleading. Modern fracking is drastically different, using new chemical mixtures and millions rather than thousands of gallons of water injected at far higher pressure — and couples that with horizontal drilling. According to congressional testimony by William Whitsitt, executive vice president for Devon Energy, "In 2002, Devon Energy ... began to marry the technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling."
These newlywed technologies remain experimental. We lack sufficient science to know how to extract shale oil and gas safely while adequately protecting public health and the environment and minimizing climate impacts. What we do know is that human health, the environment and the global climate are suffering because of fracking.
The oil and gas industry enjoys broad exemptions from seven federal environmental laws, operating in ways that are illegal for other U.S. industries. For example, because the industry is exempt from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, hazardous waste from fracking, including soil and water contaminated with drilling fluids, is unregulated.
Sixty-five fracking chemicals are federally listed as hazardous, and EPA documents note that some "cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure." These chemicals are pumped into the ground, but because of this enormous loophole, they become legally benign when they return to the surface, allowing mishandling of potentially toxic waste.
Another loophole dodges the Superfund law, which requires that polluters remediate for carcinogens like benzene released into the environment. And the most well-known of these exemptions is the "Halliburton loophole," which exempts drillers from revealing the chemicals used in fracking fluid, bypassing the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts — and makes it impossible to fully assess the risks fracking poses to public health and drinking water.
Recently, several states have passed fracking chemical disclosure bills, but so far Halliburton and industry cronies are winning the proprietary trade secret fight. In Wyoming, which has one of the strictest disclosure laws, at least 150 chemicals remain secret. Disclosure comes months after fracking is finished, denying landowners the opportunity for baseline testing for chemicals.
A report by OMB Watch found that despite these new bills, disclosure is incomplete and lacks safeguards for public health and property owner rights.
Texas landowners know that fracking contaminates water. Yet, Elizabeth Ames Jones, former chairwoman of the Texas Railroad Commission, said that it was "geologically impossible for fracturing fluid or natural gas to migrate upward through thousands of feet of rock," and into our water table. In Pennsylvania when water was contaminated by methane, Cabot Oil and Gas denied responsibility, claiming it migrated through natural pathways. And a recent Duke University study found fluids from the Marcellus formation were finding pathways into drinking water.
The wellbore itself creates a pathway for frack fluids and natural gas to contaminate water. Although cement casings are supposed to prevent this, they are often faulty. Industry's own studies found that 18 to 24 percent of wells have casing "integrity" problems that increase over time. How long it might take for a casing to fail and for fracking chemicals and methane to migrate into water is anybody's guess.
Another serious issue is water usage in our drought-stricken state. In some areas, state agencies and the public must accept estimates voluntarily given by industry, but others monitor water usage. In the Barnett Shale, the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District found that operators used over a billion gallons of groundwater in 2009 at a cost of just 22 cents per 1,000 gallons. That's pretty cheap for Texas; Austin's 2011 rate was $4.87 per 1,000 gallons. It takes between 1 million and 10 million gallons of water to frack one well once. Why are we letting fracking take the water we desperately need for farmers and ranchers?
The Texas Water Development Board predicted that by 2010, 33 percent — 1 in every 3 gallons — of Parker County water would go to natural gas development. In Texas, frack water that returns to the surface is injected into disposal wells where it is forever removed from the active hydrological cycle. This disposal process has been scientifically linked to earthquakes.
Industry not only fights even the most common-sense regulations, but also blocks our ability to gain data needed to keep communities safe. Many sick people living near drilling operations haven't been conclusively diagnosed because of the lack of data. There has been almost no research analyzing health effects of air emissions or fracking chemicals.
Many cash settlements have been paid by the industry for lawsuits over fouled water; such settlements carry nondisclosure agreements shielding information from public scrutiny. All records, including environmental testing and medical records, are sealed and kept from scientists, reporters and decisionmakers — allowing the industry to perpetuate claims that fracking doesn't pollute drinking water.
The most outrageous claim from industry is that natural gas is a clean alternative to coal. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, leaks occur at every stage of shale gas extraction and development — and methane is over 20 times more potent that carbon dioxide. A Cornell University study found these emissions may accelerate climate change.
People living near natural gas wells and processing plants report a range of health impacts from exposure to chemicals in these emissions. A Colorado School of Public Health study found that people living within a half-mile of fracking operations are at a greater risk for cancer, respiratory and other serious health issues. In unincorporated parts of Texas, gas operations may sit a mere 100 feet from some homes.
In 2010, students at Argyle High School south of Denton were sickened by fracking emissions from a facility a half-mile away. Baseline testing before drilling found seven chemicals on site; during fracking, state tests detected 65 chemicals. Our children deserve to be protected from threats like chemical exposure, yet industry fought a common-sense bill filed by state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, to prohibit drilling within 1,200 feet of schools.
Data compiled by Environmental Integrity from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records show that Texans are living with a body burden, or buildup of toxic chemicals in their bodies, that can be traced to "emission events." Eighty-five percent of the sulfur dioxide and 80 percent of the volatile organic compounds in our environment come from natural gas operations.
However, industry disputes health claims made by residents. Barnett Shale case studies in the Earthworks report "Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety" details serious health effects from shale extraction and fracking. When state-measured chemicals in the air around your home match the chemicals detected in your blood, that is when industry should stop denying and get busy solving problems.
Through slick advertising brought to us by Hill and Knowlton — the same public relations firm used by the tobacco industry to hook generations on cigarettes — the oil and gas industry has convinced Americans that fracked oil and gas is the answer to our energy needs. Americans who live with the reality of fracking know shale oil and gas are really just dirty, finite fossil fuels that neither address our long-term energy needs nor address climate change — and are damaging our health and the environment. A comprehensive energy policy would acknowledge the real problems with all fossil fuels and spark a transition towards energy efficiency and clean renewables like wind and solar power.
Natural gas is not clean, it's not safe and it's not the answer.