Hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - has been implicated in pollution incidents across the US, leading to widespread protests. Photo: LT Mayers
Special report US natural gas drilling boom linked to pollution and social strife
30th November, 2010
The gas stored in the Marcellus Shale formation is the subject of desperate drilling to secure US domestic energy supplies. But the process involved - hydraulic fracturing - is the focus of a bitter dispute over environmental damage and community rights
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.
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. 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.
‘It's almost divine intervention. Right at the time oil prices are skyrocketing, we’re struggling with the economy, we’re concerned about global warming, and national security threats remain intense, we wake up and we’ve got this abundance of natural gas around us,’ said Aubrey McClendon in 2008, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corporation, one of the leading gas companies drilling today.
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.
‘They call us little Texas,’ says Norma Fiorentino, speaking in her low-rise bungalow in the sleepy community of Dimock in northeast Pennsylvania. Dimock has become notorious in fracking circles because more than a dozen households here lost their drinking water – in Mrs Fiorentina’s case, her well exploded in the middle of the night – as a result of a methane buildup in 2009. ‘When they came in and drilled, there was so much more truck traffic, dust, noise, lights,’ she says.
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.’ Pressured into selling her mineral rights by aggressive landsmen several year ago, today she 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.’ Hers is not an isolated case.
In Bradford County, Truman Barnett's home has all the trapping of a rural hideaway. Deer antlers adorn the side of the house and a US flag flies gingerly over the carefully tended doorstep. But the serenity is broken by a low vibration, a nagging hum that churns the stomach. It is a disorientating experience. 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.’
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.’
Research has calculated that in Pennsylvania each fracked well requires an average of 592 one-way truck trips, with each truck commonly weighing more than 80 tonnes. As Northrup observes, there are more than 11,000 disposal wells in Texas, but in the temperate geology of a state such as Pennsylvania, only a few disposal wells exist, so much greater distances must be driven over trickier terrain. ‘This is like taking that rough and tumble, highly industrialised activity and plopping it right down in the Cotswolds. Maybe not such a good idea... the amount of fluid running around out there, literally, in tanker trucks, you know thousands of tanker trucks, is such that one doozy going off the road, with fracking chemicals in it, into a river, would pretty much wipe it out.’
In Pennsylvania, that river is the Delaware, water source for 16 million people, including much of the population of New Jersey and New York. For this reason alone, New York State currently has a moratorium in place on fracking until further research is carried out. Up the river in Pennsylvania, however, a cash-strapped state with rural pockets of chronic unemployment, the seductive lure of fracking rigs is currently too big an opportunity to turn down. And it is clear that the dollars, like the trucks, are starting to roll in. Hotels are fully booked, cafés have higher takings and some of the landowners that the Ecologist spoke to expressed excitement about the potential gains from mineral-leasing on their land, explaining how it might offer a way out of debt-ridden dairy farming.
But for organic farmers like Carolyn Knapp, close to the town of Towanda, the opposite is true. 'As an organic farmer I don't feel that they should be allowed to put chemicals into my ground. Chemicals that I feel can do harm to my family, to the people around me, and I feel violated.' Stories of misleading landmen trying to lure mineral rights from unsuspecting farmers are commonplace. What has really shocked Carolyn isn't just what she has given up in selling mineral leases on her land, but who she has effectively sold them too.
As she explained, from the topsoil downwards, every portion of the rock strata on her organic farm has now been divided and repeatedly resold by the company she originally leased it to, so that individual investors in Australia now have financial interests in one particular subsurface rock formation, while a Chinese company now owns the rights to mine for coal. 'The way I look at it now is that I didn't lease my property, I sold my property. I sold the subsurface... we're talking about years of people extracting whatever minerals they want from our land whenever they want.' Even if Carolyn had refused to lease her mineral rights, a law on the statute books ominously known as 'forced pooling' looks set to compel landowners to allow gas extraction from under their land where the majority of surrounding landowners are in favour of fracking.
Threats and intimidation
But in some cases, a law may not be needed at all. 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.'
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.'
Stories of group fights and tension in towns caused by the so-called 'gashole' employees are told bitterly by town residents, shocked at how quickly their rural idyll has changed. The impacts stretch beyond bar brawls, though. In 2010 alone, it was reported that more than a dozen children around the small town of Towanda had been put into foster care, their families turfed out of low-rent accommodation by unscrupulous landlords to make way for gas-industry employees who are able to offer higher rents. 'The feel of the place has just changed,' remarked Tom and Amy, a couple from Towanda, lifelong local residents who have recently put their house on the market and are looking to move away. 'Greed is ugly and greed is rampant in Bradford county today.'
Beyond the conflicts raging inside Pennsylvania's border, however, advocates of shale-gas extraction point to the benefits that fracking will bring to the whole country, helping to wean the most energy-hungry population in the world away from a reliance on both foreign energy supplies and unsustainable sources of energy, such as oil and coal.
Research has found that 1.52 full and part-time jobs are created for every oil and gas industry job that is established in the state. And in the midst of the worst economic downturn for 75 years, where as many as 70 per cent of people in some areas of Bradford county may be on state assistance, statistics such as this are very persuasive indeed.
Like many young men in Bradford Conty, Dustin was lured by the high wages on offer to work on drill pads but has since had a change of heart: 'I was getting paid $16 an hour... so it's all about the money I guess... Money talks. The way I feel about the gas industry is, I mean, yeah, they're giving people jobs, but look what they're doing. They're destroying somewhere I've lived for 21 years of my life and will probably live for the rest of my life. I don't want to see it turn into a wasteland.'
Professor Anthony Ingrafea, one of the world's leading experts on fracture mechanics, based at Cornell University, told the Ecologist: 'Oil and gas are not interchangeable. We are not going to decrease oil imports by increasing gas production. Whereas 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.'
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.'
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.'
Jim Wickens is a producer with Ecostorm
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