Fracking, Fracking Everywhere and…

August 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about fracking lately. I started out reading Tom Wilber’s carefully argued book, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Cornell University Press, 2012). Then in July we had the HBO premiere of Josh Fox’s second documentary on fracking, Gasland II (still available On Demand, to be followed, no doubt, by the DVD.) And activists are organizing ferociously to stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo from approving fracking here in NY state. He has postponed the decision a number of times, thanks, we believe, to public outcry. Last weekend I collected seventy-five signatures on Food and Water Watch‘s anti-fracking petition to Cuomo in an hour at our corner green-market . A lot of the folks I approached were pretty charged up.

Some, however, were apathetic, uninformed, or both. Several said “I’m not interested in political issues.” Other Grail members who gathered signatures in Brooklyn said some people they approached had never heard of fracking. So let me describe it, briefly, before addressing the one big problem that underlies it –the greed of the natural gas industry and its investors.

“Fracking,” short for hydraulic fracturing, is a method of drilling for oil and natural gas. It was invented in the nineteenth century, and has been used for many years to drill for oil in softer rock formations. This kind of fracking was less harmful to the environment than the current form of fracking. Since the decline of oil supplies in recent years, however, “unconventional” fracking has been used to drill into hard rock forms like shale to release natural gas. To do so, the drillers inject between two and ten million gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals into new L-shaped wells. Some of the toxic fluid trucked into the well area leaks out and poisons the ground even before the fracking begins. After the remaining fracking fluid cracks the rock, gas is released, but some also seeps into the groundwater which people depend on to drink, irrigate their crops etc. Sometimes fracking for natural gas causes earthquakes. Some of the toxic fracking fluid returns to the surface to be trucked away to public water recycling plants which are rarely able to handle the poisons adequately. (Dick Cheney got an amendment put into the U.S. Clean Water Act exempting the natural gas industry from having to reveal which toxic chemicals they put into the fracking fluid.) In addition, the cement well-casings through which the fracking fluid is injected sometimes crack causing the natural gas—methane—to leak into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, something the natural gas industry fails to mention when they tout natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future. Furthermore, the gas fracked in the Marcellus Shale area (northeastern Pennsylvania and western NY) contains a dangerous level of the radioactive substance radon in it, which, experts predict, will increase lung cancer rates. And don’t get me started on the harm done to the environment by the multitude of pipelines that will have to be built to transport the liquified natural gas from fracking wells to populated areas for use (or to the coastline for export).

But the mainstream media, and “frackademics” (whose research is funded by the natural gas industry) persist in claiming that fracking for natural gas is safe. An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports that a new portable laser gas detector will enable the gas industry to detect the kind of methane leaks that make drilling for natural more damaging to the climate than burning oil. This new ability to measure methane leaks is going to be a game-changer, according to the vice-president of the company producing the measuring device.

With regard to climate change, however, the question is not whether the gas industry can measure methane leakage from fracking wells, but whether it will. If we look back at the history of fossil fuel mining and drilling—mountaintop removal in West Virginia, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico—there is nothing to suggest that the industry will police itself regarding methane leakage into the atmosphere (or regarding methane leakage into the groundwater, or fracking fluid leakage into the groundwater, etc., etc.)  And I am not reassured by the statement in yesterday’s Times article: “The Environmental Protection Agency, which has a history of requiring new controls as technology improves, intermittently hints that it might regulate methane emissions…”

Why not? Because since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the regulation of a whole range of dangerous industrial practices affecting our food, drugs, water, air, bridges, roads, and so forth, has been steadily weakened. (See Wenonah Hauter’s hair-raising Foodopoly for examples.) And one goal of the budget cuts being endlessly pushed in Congress is to further such deregulation. Sequestration has forced the furloughing of the staffs of agencies that are already not protecting our environment; how on earth will they regulate methane leakage?

Of course, the natural gas industry could self-monitor methane leakage, fracking fluid spills, radon levels, etc.  But why would it? Such monitoring—and God forbid, remedying the problems—would cost money. And the only purpose of the natural gas revolution in the United States is to make money, plain and simple.  Fracking is the next best hope of the 1%, safety be damned.



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  1. Good exposition, Marian. Now that we know what fracking is, how many ways can we stop it?


  2. Marian, this fracking thing is going to make a few people very wealthy here in south Texas, provide employment to a lot of people and generate new businesses in small towns south of San Antonio, but I do fear that we will ALL pay in the end in terms of air, water, environmental quality. Here is a great illustration of fracking: –just “dive in,” that is, scroll down and down and down to understand the scope and cost of this technology. Thanks for your article, though I do despair of any of us being able to change a thing. Alas.


  3. How can we convince people that we all live on the same planet and we are endangering our own lives? Your articles make things clear, thank you!


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