Posted on September 19, 2011 - by Zoe Carpenter
What is hydraulic fracturing, and what is it doing to our water supply?
“You’re sitting up on the surface and drilling at the sea floor a mile away. And you’re doing it all with little robots, and the guy with a joystick is making it happen,” he explained. “The industry’s technological capability in doing what it did is absolutely mind-boggling. It’s just like going to the moon. It’s that sophisticated.”
We encountered the limits of sophistication when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010. The blowout reminded the country, albeit fleetingly, of how dangerous our addiction to fossil fuels is, whether we pump oil into our cars or spill it in the ocean. The vastness of the BP disaster clarified the cost of using deepwater drilling to get cheap fuel, but that practice is not the only form of energy adventurism that threatens our health and security.
Imagine that you reach for the faucet one morning—but instead of clean water a brown stream spews out, heavy with the smell of chemicals. You light a match and hold it up to the water, and a fireball erupts, engulfing the sink. Sound implausible? So did the notion that a blown-out deepwater well could gush for months, foiling our best attempts to cap it.
Widespread cases of water contamination have been reported in regards to hydraulic fracturing (also referred to as ‘hydrofracking,’ or simply ‘fracking’), a process used to release methane gas from hard shale rocks thousands of miles below the earth’s surface. Across the country, families are contending that their water has been irreparably damaged from natural gas drilling.
The hunt for domestic sources of alternative energy awoke a slumbering natural gas industry, which increased production globally by 40 percent between 1999 and 2010. Utility companies are attracted to natural gas because of new emissions regulations that make coal expensive, and safety concerns that cloud the future of nuclear power. Hard times in agricultural communities have made the idea of leasing land to energy companies increasingly attractive to landowners. Many communities have placed their bet on the hope that drilling can bring jobs and investment back to rural areas.
There’s lots of natural gas beneath US soil, but until recently much of it was trapped in shale rock formations thousands of miles beneath the surface. Now, technical advances have unlocked many of the reserves, kicking off the nation-wide hydrofracking boom.
The process involves drilling a horizontal well at a depth of up to 8,000 feet, and pumping in water, sand, and toxic chemicals. The pressure creates fissures in the shale, a sedimentary rock containing high concentrations of organic material including natural gas, which is released into the tiny cracks and pumped to the surface.
Hydrofracking uses over 500 chemicals, between 80 and 300 tons per frack. The drilling process produces millions of gallons of polluted wastewater, which can contain corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium. Those compounds occur naturally belowground and so can be released along with natural gas by the high pressure.
Industry officials insist that fracking occurs thousands of miles below drinking-water aquifers, and that the distance is too great for contamination. Some of the controversy is simply about a subtle difference between fracking and drilling. Natural gas drilling practices have been clearly linked to numerous cases of water contamination that have resulted in fines and penalties for shale drilling companies; however, as the New York Times reports the industry position that “fracking” refers specifically to the injection of chemicals into the shale forms the foundation for claims that fracking, specifically, has never been proven to contaminate groundwater.
Semantic squabbles aside, the fact is that polluted water and other health concerns increasingly appear in shale drilling hotspots throughout the country. Foul-smelling and discolored water, respiratory and skin infections, and explosive gas build-ups originating in waterlines are just part of the toll natural gas drilling has taken on nearby communities.
An investigation by ProPublica revealed that environmental health cases related to emissions and waste from hydrologic fracking go back a decade in Wyoming and Colorado, where drilling has long been underway. Cases are emerging now in Pennsylania, where the fracking craze exploded when energy companies began targeting the Marcellus Shale formation in 2008.
Neither the federal government nor states have a system for tracking reports about water contamination. Nor have they pursued a full investigation into the human health risks of natural gas drilling.
Federal oversight is hogtied by an exemption known as the Halliburton Loophole, which was built into President Bush’s 2005 energy bill. The loophole excuses natural gas drilling from the Safe Water Act and from disclosing chemicals used during fracking. That means that it’s up to states to police the practice.
Establishing effective regulation is complicated by the fact that very little comprehensive research has been done. Officials often struggle to investigate suspected cases of groundwater contamination, because energy companies legally seal the details of complaints through legal settlements with landowners.
It all sounds too familiar. I spent several weeks reporting on the aftermath of the BP disaster in Louisiana communities, and I saw how much the rush into deep water had crippled the coastal economy. Rural America needs diversified investment, true support for small and mid-size farmers, better healthcare and education opportunities, and a comprehensive energy policy—not explosive tap water and corporate control. Hydraulic fracturing is not a solution for our economic and energy problems. It’s a symptom of them.
The EPA is currently weighing public comments on hydraulic fracturing. If fracking is truly as safe as energy companies claim, research and regulation by the EPA won’t get in the way of production. But it’s crazy to resign ourselves to fumbling about in the dark, 8,000 miles below the surface, putting our health and our land at risk. Sign now to tell the EPA: conduct a thorough review of fracking and hold corporations accountable for polluting our water. It’s a resource too precious to barter in exchange for short-term solutions.
Photo: Flickr/PJ Ray