Natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing
‘Fracking’ causes environmental, human disaster
Published Dec 10, 2009 10:01 PM
Imagine finding methane and metals in your drinking water or having your water
well explode or catch on fire. Imagine getting thrown out of bed one morning as
your entire house is lifted off the ground from an explosion due to methane gas
build-up. These nightmares are a reality for a growing number of families whose
homes are located near natural gas drilling sites in New York, Pennsylvania,
Ohio and other states across the U.S.
These explosions, along with massive fish kills, and chemical and even
radioactive contamination of drinking water, are linked to a practice known as
hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” used in nine out of 10 natural
gas wells in the U.S.
Pioneered by Halliburton, the process involves injecting millions of gallons of
water, sand and chemicals at high pressure down and across horizontally drilled
wells as far as 10,000 feet below the surface. The pressure causes the rocks to
crack and release natural gas. The fissures are held apart by the sand
particles allowing natural gas from the shale to flow up the well. Halliburton
refuses to divulge the contents of the chemical cocktail used in the
Since 2004, much of this practice has been concentrated in the Marcellus Shale,
a geological formation that spreads from midstate New York across more than
half of Pennsylvania and into Ohio and West Virginia. It reaches cities from
Cleveland, Buffalo N.Y., and Pittsburgh in the western region almost to New
York City and Philadelphia in the east.
The major companies involved in drilling in the Marcellus Shale area include
Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy, with rights to 1.45 million acres;
Texas-based Range Resources, with 1.4 million acres; and Cabot Oil & Gas,
also headquartered in Texas, with 1.2 million acres. Several billion-dollar
companies, including Norwegian colossus StatoilHydro Asa, Texas-based Anadarko
Petroleum and EOG Resources, are also feeding at the Marcellus Shale
The natural gas content of the Marcellus Shale is estimated to range from 168
trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet. From 2000 to 2008 the number of active oil
and gas wells in New York nearly doubled, from 6,845 to 13,687. In Pennsylvania
4,000 wells have been drilled since 2008, and are anticipated to produce 19
million gallons of wastewater a day by 2011. While the industry claims that
thousands of new jobs are being created, so far much of the field work is being
done by crews from Texas and Oklahoma who have expertise in shale gas.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell had pushed for a tax on gas extracted from the
wells, but dropped the plan despite record budget deficits that kept the state
from paying vendors for more than 100 days this summer. The natural gas
industry spent over $1 million lobbying the state Legislature to oppose the
tax. Instead of the tax, Rendell has proposed tripling the number of leases for
drillers in state-owned forests.
Targeting poor communities
Much of this area is in the impoverished northern Appalachia region, dotted by
isolated small towns and farms that are no longer productive, and are
communities with high rates of unemployment. The poverty and relative isolation
of the region have made residents prime targets of corporate salespeople, who
have pushed them into leasing land for oil wells.
In Dimrock, Pa., one out of seven residents was out of work and people were
facing foreclosure of their homes. When Cabot offered $25 an acre for the right
to drill for five years, plus royalties when gas started flowing, it sounded
like a good deal to people who owned vacant fields but little else.
Cabot, which earned close to a billion dollars in revenue in 2008, drilled 20
wells in the area and is producing $58 million worth of gas annually. The
subsequent water contamination has forced many low-income Dimrock residents to
turn to expensive bottled water.
Problems stemming from fracking are surfacing in communities throughout the
Marcellus Shale region. In Dimrock, considered “ground zero” for
drilling, several drinking-water wells have exploded.
“Nine were found to contain so much methane gas that one homeowner was
told to open a window if he planned to take a bath. Dishes showed metallic
streaks that couldn’t be washed off, and tests also showed high amounts
of aluminum, lead and iron, prompting fears that drilling fluids might be
contaminating the water along with the gas.” (ProPublica, April 26).
In September, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials
charged Cabot with five violations after nearly 8,000 gallons of hydraulic
fracturing fluids spilled in two separate incidents near Dimrock. It took a
third spill for Cabot to voluntarily halt the fracking. According to
Halliburton the substance spilled was a lubricating gel that poses “a
substantial threat to human health” and was a “potential
carcinogen” that has caused skin cancer in animals.
Residents near the town of Roaring Branch, Pa., reported rust-colored water
flowing from a spring and two small creeks bubbling with methane gas. The
incidents were among more than 50 similar cases related to gas drilling in the
state. In several instances houses exploded as a result of gas leaks and in one
case three people were killed.
Workers at U.S. Steel and Allegheny Energy near McKeesport found that water
used to power their plant contained so much salty sediment it was corroding
their machinery. An estimated 10,000 fish died on a 33-mile stretch of Dunkard
Creek in this area.
A giant ‘science experiment’
There is also a growing concern that the huge amount of water needed for
drilling as well as the enormous volume of waste water created in the fracking
process could eventually put water supplies in jeopardy, including the supply
to New York City that, in fact, serves half the state’s population.
Along with the rapid expansion in the Marcellus Shale region has come growing
environmental concerns. Many of the practices used in the extraction are still
experimental. “In this gas rush, New York is fast becoming a geological
science experiment that many experts fear will have profound, dire
environmental and health consequences. The drilling companies use a
witch’s brew of water, pressure and chemicals to force the gas from the
shale. It is the secrecy of what is in that brew that has New Yorkers
worried,” stated Allison Sickle. (DCBureau, Nov. 30)
Oil-based chemicals have been used in the gas drilling process, but are known
to be harmful to the environment. Toxic mud and fracturing fluids, along with
waste water that resurfaces, can contaminate soil and surface water. Spills
have already resulted from the transport of chemically-laden fluids and
wastewater to and from drilling sites.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has detected high levels
of radium-226, a radioactive element, in 13 samples of wastewater from
Marcellus Shale drilling, according to ProPublica. The state now faces a
wastewater disposal problem.
Chemicals coming out with wastewater from wells in Pennsylvania and West
Virginia were found to include 4-nitroquinoline N-oxide, used to induce tumors
in laboratory animals, and benzene, a known carcinogen.
Sickle notes, “Environmentalists fear increased natural gas production
has a huge risk of ruining some of the most pristine watershed, park, farm and
recreational land in the United States.” The region involves 7,500 lakes
and ponds and 50,000 miles of rivers and streams.
Fracking also occurs in parts of the Midwest and southwestern U.S. There are no
regulations for hydraulic fracturing in 21 of the 31 states where the practice
has been in effect for several years. Fracking was exempted from the Safe
Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act passed by Congress as part of the
Energy Policy Act in 2005.
Dec. 3 marked the 25th anniversary of the widespread and continued
contamination resulting from the Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India,
that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Without any serious regulation of
hydraulic fracturing practices, is the U.S. facing a disaster of that
Next: Activists say “No fracking way!”—Interview with
Ithaca-based Green Guerrillas
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