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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 process.

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 trough.

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 magnitude?

Next: Activists say “No fracking way!”—Interview with Ithaca-based Green Guerrillas