No 126 Posted by fw, March 3, 2011
“Fracking is currently taking America by storm. In Pennsylvania alone, government estimates predict that 3,000-4,000 new wells will be drilled each year for the next 30 years. And America is not alone: test sites have already been set up over gas-holding shale formations in Poland, France, England and Germany. So where is the catch, and what can these European countries expect? The Ecologist visited Pennsylvania to find out.”
And find out they did. With a film crew in tow, The Ecologist captured their story in words and images. Replete with disturbing revelations, the story, with a 14:18-minute embedded video, was published in the November 30, 2010, edition, under the title: US Natural gas drilling boom linked to pollution and social strife. Watch the video here and then read, below, excerpted passages from the article. (To read the full account of the story, click on the title link in this paragraph).
From picture postcard Pennsylvanian sleepy backdrop to rumbling trucks on Main Streets
It is a timeless patchwork of small dairy farms and endless hills, emblazoned with the blood-red tints of an autumnal Pennsylvania forest. Set against this sleepy backdrop, however, the constant convoys of water trucks rumbling along the deserted country roads suggest something profound is taking place. This is‘fracking’ country, the latest frontier in America’s desperate search for fossil fuels.
What the frack is ‘fracking’?
Pioneered by companies such as Halliburton, high-volume horizontal slickwater fracturing –otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, or simply fracking – involves the drilling of horizontal wells that are then injected with large volumes of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to open up rock fractures and help propel rock-trapped gas back to the surface.
The irresistible gas-cash-rush
For landowners, those in the gas industry and governments of cash-strapped US states that find themselves sitting on the gas-rich lines of the Marcellus Shale rock formation, this new technique has opened up lucrative opportunities and created a rush unseen for decades. Vast reserves of previously untappable natural gas, perhaps in excess of 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, can now be extracted on US soil, and the arguments used by advocates of fracking seem impressive.
Exploding wells from methane buildup
Dimock in northeast Pennsylvania has become notorious in fracking circles because more than a dozen households here lost their drinking water – in Mrs Norma Fiorentina’s case, her well exploded in the middle of the night – as a result of a methane buildup in 2009. Like others in the community we spoke with, she now relies on bottled water to drink, unable to touch the water that comes from her artesean well. “Mine was never black, it was like an orange colour and it smelt of dirty socks. It would smell of diesel fuel.“
Deep regrets at selling mineral rights
Pressured into selling her mineral rights by aggressive landsmen several year ago, today Norma mourns the loss of the water that she once took for granted. “A geologist told us it would be 200-300 years before we got our water back. It makes me very mad because my life is over without my water.“
From bucolic heaven to toxic hell
In Bradford County, Truman Barnett’s home has all the trapping of a rural hideaway. . . . But the serenity is broken by a low vibration, a nagging hum that churns the stomach. . . . The source of the disturbance is a gas well constructed a couple of hundred metres from his home, and the unpleasant vibration is a 24-hour reminder of the compressor that whirrs away on the site. “The only thing you heard at night-time was your heartbeat. Now it’s just totally devastated here. Inside my home you can hear and see the pictures vibrate on the walls,” he says. There have been two spills on the site above him to date, plant life and pond animals on his land have reportedly died, and the impact on his family has been profound.”Our drinking water and our house has high concentrations of lead, they’ve told us not to drink it and don’t bathe in it… from our heaven it’s turned into our hell.“
Bush’s gift to Big Gas — “The Halliburton loophole”
Fracking involves the use of huge volumes of water and a potent cocktail of chemical ingredients that are pumped underground to assist with the process. What isn’t known, however, is exactly which chemical combinations are actually being used, a confidentiality that is enshrined in national law. Referred to affectionately as the ‘Halliburton loophole’, in 2005 the Bush administration effectively exempted the gas industry from a number of federal acts that would have enabled critics to clamp down, regulate and scrutinise the gas industry; and specifically, understand the precise nature of the chemicals being used in fracking processes.
It is a situation that exasperates healthcare professionals and local citizens alike. “Am I comfortable with an industry that won’t disclose and tell me, as an American citizen, what they’re putting underneath my feet?” asks John Lykens, an engineer from Bradford county. “Absolutely not. They’re exempt from the Superfund Act, the Safe Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act… environmental acts that were put down to protect everyday citizens.“
When the Ecologist spoke with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group representing the gas industry, it stated that only a tiny percentage of the liquids going into the ground – less than 1 per cent overall – is ‘chemicals’, and that although some biocides are used, others are the same as those found in everyday ingredients such as peanut butter.
But for industry professionals such as Jim Northrup, this kind of PR statement is simply misleading. “Do the math on that. That means that there’s 5,000 gallons… of toxic chemicals that goes into each well. Some of the fracking fluid is more toxic than others, but the fact is that none of these chemicals is potable. You know methanol, hydrocholoric acid, athalyne, glycol. I mean, when someone tells you that it’s like peanut butter then you just shake it up in some milk and you ask them to drink it.“
For Northrup, a major worry is not just the chemicals that go into the ground but the potential disposal of them when the frack-water resurfaces. He claims that “in addition to the fracking fluid, which we know is toxic… the frack flowback leaches radium out of the shale. The level of radium in the Marcellus is about 276 times the safe disposal limit. Meaning it’ll kill you… you are looking at as much as four million gallons of flowback that comes out of one pad site and you got to have a place to get rid of it.“
Industry threats and intimidation
With million-dollar mineral leases at stake, and the much-heralded prospect of economic regeneration, voices that speak out against the dangers of fracking are frequently met with hostility or worse. The Ecologist met with John Trallo, an outspoken opponent of fracking, outside his home in Sonestown, deep in the hills of Sullivan County, northern Pennsylvania. During the interview an industry gas truck drove slowly past John’s home and the passenger used his hand to imitate a gun against the window as it rolled on by. “I refused this guy access to my land,” John says, “and since then he has repeatedly threatened me, even showing me his gun and saying how he will shoot and bury me down a well with all the gas.” John was clearly distressed by the threat that had been made to us during the interview, but not defeated. “I mean this is what is happening to our community; frankly this kind of behaviour says it all.“
Fracking fractures communities
After a week investigating the impacts of fracking on rural Pennsylvania, it’s clear that it’s not just the land that is being fractured but perhaps the communities as well. What were once sleepy towns are now clogged bumper-to-bumper with water trucks carrying water containers and fracking chemicals to and from the thousands of well-sites that increasingly dot the landscape. As one diner owner dryly observed to the Ecologist: “If these trucks were all painted green, you would think we were being invaded.“
Cornell professor Tony Ingrafea: “lifecycle cost of natural gas . . . is at least as dirty as coal”
“The national energy plan that says over some period of time, 20 years maybe, at most, we are going to downplay and downsize the use of coal and increase the use of natural gas in what are coal-fired power plants. That would be a great thing to do, except 20 years from now we’re now out of natural gas . . . then what are we going to use for electricity? Natural gas burns cleaner than any other fossil fuel, but it is not cleaner in its lifecycle. The lifecycle cost, in terms of carbon dioxide emission, and methane emission, from the development of gas from unconventional sources like shale is at least as dirty as coal.“
Gas Industry is “out of control”
For Ingrafea, there is an overriding urgency to slow down the fracking rush. “I’m not anti-oil and gas. What I’m against is an industry that is so out of control in using a new technology that does not have proper regulation, and enforcement of regulation, that they’re riding roughshod over a large segment of the population.“
Fracking in Europe begins
As drilling rigs begin shale exploration across Europe the conflicting experiences of Pennsylvania offer a stark warning to communities and governments this side of the Atlantic. As Norma Fiorentino predicts: “Your beautiful countryside will never be the same. Your peace and serenity will be gone. For a few bucks, and basically, that’s just what it is.“
Meanwhile, Googling “fracking Canada” resulted in 89,000 hits including this one —
And Harper is leading in the polls? How uninformed / misinformed can some Canadians be?