It’s not quite the infinite-energy-from-tap-water-via-cold-fusion miracle that industrialists have been assuring us is just around the corner — the sudden scientific panacea that would painlessly and profitably avert our rush toward energy catastrophe. But hydraulic fracturing, invented by Halliburton and beloved of Exxon, is close.
A frack job involves injecting water, sand, and an unknown number of unknown chemicals (more on this later), under tremendous pressure, into a bed of shale deep underground that contains natural gas. The explosive impact fractures the shale, opens up new passageways and lets gas that is unavailable to ordinary drilling methods flow to the well. Because of this technique, estimates of America’s gas reserves have increased by over one-third in the past two years.
According to all the usual industrial spokespeople, it’s a win-win-win-win-win situation. In honor of the vast (potential) supply, gas prices are down, so consumers get a break on their heating costs. Burning natural gas for home heating, cooking, electricity generation and the like, produces much less pollution than burning oil or coal, so the un-American anti-pollution lobby should be happy, or at least shut up. The gas belongs to us, so we don’t have to worry about maintaining a long supply line or dealing with political or religious extremism at the source. (Well. One out of two is still pretty good.) So drill, baby, drill and burn, baby, burn, and as Burl Ives used to sing, “Let the Devil take tomorrow, for tonight I’ve got a friend.”
Hydraulic fracturing is now used in nine out of every ten of America’s gas well. A 2004 study by George Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency found that the process posed “no risk” to drinking water. Dick Cheney’s Congress immediately exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, in what is now widely called the “Halliburton Loophole.” The industry expects to be drilling more than 30,000 new wells a year soon. Exxon is so excited by the prospects for what it calls “unconventional sources” that on Monday it announced it had purchased a company with extensive gas-shale holdings, XTO Energy, for $31 billion in stock.
The down side? For that you have to go to the aforementioned anti-American anti-pollution guys. Turns out that when you bomb underground chambers with chemicals and push gas around under pressure, its gets into other peoples’ water supply. But before we listen to their complaints, you should know that the responsible journals have already ruled on this. The New York Times calls evidence of water pollution by fracking, “thin.” Reuters, reporting Exxon’s very big gas deal, stated — this is a statement by Reuters, not Reuters quoting an industry spokesman — “there has never been a documented case of ground water contamination because of hydraulic fracturing.”
Want some documents?
- Bainbridge, Ohio, 2007. Migrating natural gas driven by hydraulic fracturing contaminated the town police station’s water supply, seeped into a house and blew it up. I’m pretty sure there are documents on that.
- Sublette County, Wyoming, 2008. An enormous area of this rural county’s aquifer is contaminated by methane, benzene and fluoride, the latter two chemicals listed on Halliburton’s application for a patent of its fracturing process. (Yes, fluoride in tiny concentrations in good for teeth, but in larger amounts can destroy bone — and in Wyoming’s water they found it at at three times the EPA maximum.) Virtually the only industrial activity taking place in the region is fracking. You can look it up.
- Dimock, PA, 2009. 13 water wells polluted by methane (one of them exploded) after a nearby gas well started fracturing. Ask any of the 13 families for documents.
That’s a sampling. Hundreds of incident reports exist of cases of impaired or polluted groundwater associated with fracking in Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. The most common complaint involves methane, or natural gas, being where it shouldn’t (and blowing up things it shouldn’t). But there’s also the matter of those chemicals used in fracking. The companies won’t reveal what they are — trade secrets, you know. But of the 300 whose use is suspected by government and other researchers, 65 are hazardous. Industry spokesman reassure us by saying, acording to a ProPublica report, that releasing specific details would only frighten and confuse the public. Indeed. Nothing frightens me more than when industry says that.
What industry relies on, has always relied on when it has sickened and killed people with pollution, is the difficulty of proving that the molecule that killed us came from a particular smokestack or sewage pipe among all the smokestacks and sewage pipes emitting toxins. Move events deep underground, where the effects are invisible and their location unknowable, and the difficulty of offering proof increases by an order of magnitude.
Unless, of course, we are allowed to appeal to common sense.
As the beat goes on, operations are going to be moving into high gear, most especially in the Marcellus Shale formation that underlies an enormous area stretching from southern West Virginia to upstate New York. This is the area where the company just bought by Exxon has most of its holdings. And it is an area of heavy population density, unlike Wyoming. In fact, cities including New York depend on this area’s water for drinking.
Like I said, Marcellus is about to get a frack job. And in the process a lot of people are going to get worked over.