A new “f” word has entered our language that has nothing to do with sex but everything to do with exploitation. From New York to Tennessee, above the gassy geological formation called Marcellus shale, people are debating the practice of fracking.
Fracking is short for "hydraulic fracturing" to extract natural gas from shale. It involves drilling a hole a mile down, then thousands of feet horizontally, and pumping down millions of gallons of water laced with sand, salt and chemicals to crack the shale. Gas is forced up, along with roughly 25 percent of the contaminated wastewater, often hot with radioactivity.
Shale gas fields are called ‘plays,’ but developing them is serious business. Since 2005, when Congress approved the so-called Halliburton Loophole to exempt fracking from federal standards for clean water, companies from Oklahoma to Japan have spent millions of dollars to frack rural communities innocent of any knowledge about the practice.
By some estimates, fracking Marcellus and other shales across North America could satisfy our desire for gas for the next 45 years.
Fracking is ongoing in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Now Texas-based Carrizo Company wants to frack Bergton, Va., long famous as one of the most idyllic pastoral communities in the Shenandoah Valley.
At first the attraction between gas companies and communities is mutual: landowners, often poor, gain income from leases, stores gain business, counties gain tax base. The industry courts communities with assurances that the chemicals used compose only one part per hundred of the fracking fluid, are environmentally friendly, and will be treated at the local sewage plant.
For global warming worriers, the sexiest aspect is the reduction in greenhouse gases emitted by burning natural gas compared to oil; for others, it’s the fact that gas is domestic, reducing our bondage to hostile foreign countries.
For many, the romance quickly pales. Fracking chemicals include formaldehyde, benzene, and others known to be carcinogenic at a few parts per million. Municipal plants can’t handle fracking wastewater, and it’s stored in open pits until trucked elsewhere. If enough fresh water can’t be sucked from streams on site, trucks haul it in.
Eighteen-wheelers rolling 24/7 pulverize country roads and cause accidents, like the one that spilled 8,000 gallons of toxic materials into a Pennsylvania creek last year. And they emit enough carbon to seriously shrink the greenhouse gas advantage of fracked gas.
Explosions are occurring from causes similar to BP’s Gulf debacle. In early June, a blowout at one of the thousand-plus fracking wells in Pennsylvania spewed flammable gas and polluted water 75 feet high for sixteen hours. One of our most recent local headlines reads, “W.Va. Gas Well Blast Injures 7; Flames Now 40 Feet.”
Fracking’s impact on surface and groundwater outlasts any explosion. People from New York to Texas complain that their wells deteriorated after fracking started nearby. Pennsylvania officials ordered Cabot Gas Corporation to pay fines, plug wells, and install treatment systems in 14 houses where methane contaminated drinking water.
New York state officials see fracking as so risky that they imposed far stricter environmental regulations within watersheds that supply ten million people with drinking water. They feared an outright ban would provoke lawsuits from landowners eager to sign leases.
Landowner rights are sacred in Appalachia, but the recent request by a company that transports gas in Pennsylvania to be declared a “utility,” which would give it the power to condemn property for pipelines, puts a new twist on the issue. And what about my right to continue drinking clean water from my well on my property?
The likelihood of leaks of toxic materials into waters are enhanced when drilling occurs in the 100-year flood plain, as is proposed in Bergton. In 40 years that region has seen many disastrous floods, and the mountainous Bergton area is always among the hardest hit. A flood would sweep a well pad with containers of chemicals, fuels, and open wastewater pits into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and ultimately into the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.
Given the risks, fracking seems merely to prolong our addiction to fossil fuel, when renewable energy is within reach: solar panel costs have fallen by half, and offshore wind turbines offer huge energy efficiencies.
But history insists on repeating itself. For centuries, Appalachia has been raped by outside interests wresting iron, timber, and coal from these mountains. Once again, people from elsewhere are taking huge profits and leaving a pittance and a lot of ugly pits behind, while politicians stall efforts to repair the regulatory loophole. They are risking through accident or carelessness the poisoning of water for millions of people, generations into the future.
Chris Bolgiano is the author or editor of five books. This commentary is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.
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