Why you need to know about Fracking — it may be coming to a field or neighborhood near you

Ground-level view of a natural gas well fracking operation

Have you heard about “fracking”? Hydraulic fracturing, also known as hyrdofracking or simply fracking, is a form of natural gas mining that has wells popping up in many regions across the United States. One of the hotbeds of activity is in northeastern Pennsylvania, where the discovery of the Marcellus Shale gas deposits has transformed quiet rural communities into gas boom towns, much to the dismay and regret of many residents.

Marcellus Shale gas wells of Bradford County, Pennsylvania

Photo from the Gas Wells Are Not Our Friends blog, Bradford County, Pennsylvania.

The natural gas industry would like to paint this mining technique as an economic boom and an alternative to foreign oil. Environmentalists are raising significant questions about the dangers of this mining activity and the lack of regulation that the industry is subject to. Also, like oil and coal, “natural gas” is a fossil fuel that creates greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) when burned, so it’s not getting us away from fuels that contribute to global warming. In fact, methane itself is a potent greenhouse gas, 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, so reducing direct methane emissions is an important environmental concern.

Natural gas is a gas consisting primarily of methane….Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must undergo processing to remove almost all materials other than methane. The by-products of that processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, elemental sulfur, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and sometimes helium and nitrogen.

Fracking is an issue that could affect your water supply and environment. Based on what I have learned so far, fracking is a potentially damaging and dangerous activity that is not regulated or researched nearly stringently enough given the potential damages it could cause.

A legal term for this is that fracking creates “negative externalities”–as in, the gas companies can come in, frack away and create great damage, messes and problems that the industry is not responsible for cleaning up. (The opposite of the “Pottery Barn” doctrine, “you break it, you buy it.”)

I am sharing this on the Mojo Mom blog because this issue affects millions of people across the nation and yet it is an issue that is just making its way onto the public’s consciousness. The independent film Gasland has helped get the story out. But the natural gas industry is moving very quickly to secure gas leases across the country, even in places where fracking is currently illegal, and is putting in wells at an alarming rate where they can.

Next time you read a national magazine or newspaper, keep an eye out for industry ads. Oil companies and their trade group have invested heavily in campaign contributions and lobbying. The oil and natural gas sector has bankrolled $347 million on lobbying since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The pro-gas ads have become prevalent here in North Carolina where fracking is currently illegal, and citizens are working hard to keep it that way while the Natural Gas industry pressures state legislators to change the law.

There is so much to share on this subject that it’s very hard to keep it brief, but my goal is to write a short primer on fracking and share more resources (and references) at the end of this post. [This post ended up being quite long but I will create a short excerpt too!]

What is fracking?

Fracking cross-section

Hydraulic fracturing is a method of mining natural gas from shale deposits located thousands of feet below ground level. A well is drilled straight down for a mile and then the drill turns 90 degrees and proceeds to drill horizontally for another couple of miles. Then high pressure fluid, a million gallons of water mixed with proprietary fracking fluids per “frack,” are injected into the ground to create fractures that will release the methane gas which is then collected. Sand or other materials are also injected to keep the fracture from closing up.

Fracturing is necessary because in these formations, the gas is trapped in the shale and it has to be disrupted by micro-earthquakes and fractures to release the gas.

My first common sense concern about this idea is to wonder what happens when you put thousands or millions of new fractures into the ground beneath our feet? The geological impact of this is not well studied, but to me it seems like a terrible idea to literally undermine the ground we walk on in this way.

Could fracking activity have caused the recent magnitude 5.8 East Coast earthquake? A very good question, and the United States Geological Service says that:

Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented in a few locations in the United States, Japan, and Canada. The cause was injection of fluids into deep wells for waste disposal and secondary recovery of oil, and the use of reservoirs for water supplies. Most of these earthquakes were minor. The largest and most widely known resulted from fluid injection at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado. In 1967, an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 followed a series of smaller earthquakes. Injection had been discontinued at the site in the previous year once the link between the fluid injection and the earlier series of earthquakes was established.

Where is all that water going to come from and where will it go after it is turned into industrial waste?

Wastewater disposal wells have also been blamed for giant sinkholes that have put towns like Daisetta Texas “on shaky ground.” When you put a million gallons of water, fracking fluid, and sand into a well, you get a lot of that flowing back to the surface (30% -50%), and that now-contaminated water has to go somewhere. Plus, where are we going to get those MANY millions of gallons of water from? Remember, it takes a million+ gallons of water PER WELL. Other uses, even something that sounds luxurious like watering a golf course, do return water into the ecosystem and water cycle. But with fracking, the water goes into the well and what comes out must be treated as waste and disposed of, through methods including in waste injection wells, being evaporated into the air (releasing volatile organic compounds), or being absorbed with sawdust and put into a landfill.

What are contamination issues with groundwater?

Contaminated drinking water can be set aflame as it comes out of the faucet

The natural gas industry is fond of saying that there is no scientific proof that fracking fluids contaminate ground water (drinking water). But the gas industry is less likely to point out there there IS scientific evidence that fracking does contaminate drinking water wells with methane, up to one kilometer away–leading levels of methane that are exceeding action level for hazard mitigation defined by the US Department of the Interior. And there could be more pollution of drinking water from fracking activities–including containment ponds on the ground surface. There is active research being done in this area right now, including taking baseline measurements of ground water, which the gas industry was not required to do before installing wells. It could take ten years to do all the research needed to determine whether and how fracking could be done safely, and by that point the damage will be done. Why isn’t the burden incumbent on the gas industry to prove that fracking is safe BEFORE they do it? Good question!

How un-regulated is the fracking industry?

Federal regulation is very weak. Fracking is not subject to the Clean Air Act or the Clean Drinking Water Act, thanks to legislation by the Bush/Cheney administration that specifically exempts the industry from these regulations—commonly called the Halliburton Loophole.

In North Carolina, our new Republican-majority state legislature changed state law so that state-mandated regulations cannot be stricter than federal legislation, meaning that the industry cannot be subject to state regulations that would make up for the lax federal oversight. To me that is an absolute dealbreaker right there, yet this same Legislature is actively exploring and in many cases promoting fracking interests.

What are other social costs of fracking?

Turning a rural agricultural community into a gas boom town is an ugly business. In Pennsylvania, farmers who regret signing gas leases have reported that their farms are burdened by more mining-related equipment than they expected, including well pads, compression stations and wastewater impoundment ponds that impede their ability to farm their land. Streets have been damaged by heavy truck traffic to the point where roads are impassable for two weeks. Longtime residents of Bradford County say that the gas industry brought to town divorce, crime, full jails, traffic jams, a housing shortage with increased rent from $200 to $5000 a month, displacing long-time residents; contaminated beef, farmland that needs massive work to be reclaimed, loss of tourism due to dead zones that no one wants to come visit anymore. Trees are seen as a nuisance and are being chipped and not even used for timber.

The heart of the tragedy keeps coming back to environmental damage and health hazards. From the Vanity Fair article, “A Colossal Fracking Mess,” June 21, 2010:

The real shock that Dimock [Pennsylvania] has undergone, however, is in the aquifer that residents rely on for their fresh water. Dimock is now known as the place where, over the past two years, people’s water started turning brown and making them sick, one woman’s water well spontaneously combusted, and horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair.

The former mayor of DISH Texas, Calvin Tillman, now working with shaletest.org, moved out of his town after his young sons started to get nosebleeds at night. An air quality study found multiple human carcinogens in the air. Tillman sold his home at a loss and required that the buyers watch Gasland as a condition of the sale.

What about jobs and the economy?

The costs of cleaning up after fracking are heavily borne by local or state governments who are unprepared to take on these problems.

In Pennsylvania, some operators have shipped the discharge to wastewater treatment plants. But these plants can’t handle or even detect many of the types of chemicals and salts and, in some cases, naturally occurring radioactivity. In Pittsburgh, radioactive material from discharge passed through a city treatment plant and wound up in the drinking water supply.

Landowners who leased their land for mining may end up being held liable for environmental damage in neighboring areas.

There are jobs to be had, primarily commercial truck driving and specialty jobs as welders or technicians in the industry–jobs that local residents may not qualify for.

Someone will make a quick buck on all this activity but we should not be willing to sell out our communities for a gas boom that lasts a decade or so. When the boom is over local people will likely be left with a painful economic bust and the job of cleaning up severe, even epic, environmental impacts. (The question of who in your state stands to make money, besides the gas industry itself, is an important one to investigate because that will help you identify sources of political pressure.)

I highly recommend you read blogs of local communities in Pennsylvania and Texas to learn more, and take a close look at the impacts that are already taking place, and the intense leaser’s remorse being experienced in many communities. This photo from “Bob’s Blog” telling the story of fracking near Hickory, in Washington County Pennsylvania, really caught my attention:

And if you are an urban citizen and think that this doesn’t affect you, think again. The Delaware River used to be clean, and now it is has been designated America’s most threatened river. And, oh yeah, it happens to be a major drinking water source for Philadelphia, New York City and New Jersey. More than 15 million people get their drinking water from the Delaware River’s once-pristine watershed.

This affects all of us and we need to educate ourselves about fracking and get involved in our state. Learn from what others have gone through. This is truly one of those issues that I can’t stand by and watch passively–my daughter would never forgive me. North Carolina doesn’t even show up on this map of shale gas plays in the continental USA, but our relatively small “Triassic Basin” deposits–small on this map but affecting 14 counties here at home in NC–are enough to generate a lot of interest. The heart of this deposit lies close to the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant and Jordan Lake, the drinking water supply for Raleigh, not to mention acres of precious farmland. If we screw all this up with fracking, we are truly reckless and unable to learn from history or other communities’ mistakes.

More resources:

If not otherwise noted or linked, facts cited in this article are from my notes from the “Don’t Rush to Frack Summit” sponsored by Clean Water for North Carolina on September 10, 2011 in Pittsboro North Carolina

Expert: State regulation of fracking crucial by Laura Leslie on WRAL.com. An interview with scientist Professor Robert Jackson is Nicholas Chair of Global Environmental Change at Duke. Jackson is one of the authors of the first peer-reviewed study to measure well-water contamination from shale-gas drilling and hydrofracking.

Despite the dangers of fracking, North Carolina lawmakers want to legalize it
by Lisa Sorg, Indyweek.com.

North Carolina legislature considers hydraulic fracturing by Memet Walker, The Daily Tar Heel, September 20, 2011.

The top ten most surprising things I learned at the [Pittsboro NC] Fracking Summit by Tara, blogger on Progressive Democrats of North Carolina.

ProPublica reporting by Abram Lustgarten, Science Lags as Health Problems Emerge Near Gas Fields, September 16, 2011.

Fresh Air with Terry Gross interview with Abram Lustgarten, September 29, 2011.

Game Changer episode of This American Life, July 8, 2011, tells of environmental problems near Pittsburgh and other parts of Pennsylvania, and the complicated relationship between Penn State University and the methane gas industry.

This post is already very long, so I don’t want to go into this issue in detail, but it’s worth knowing that in North Dakota, natural gas is being burned off every day in large quantities:

In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie,
New York Times, September 26, 2011

The gas bubbles up alongside the far more valuable oil, and with less economic incentive to capture it, the drillers treat the gas as waste and simply burn it. Every day, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way — enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.