Fracking: What Lies Beneath?
Disclaimer: Although this blog post has been researched like any other news piece I would write, it represents my personal perspective about natural gas drilling. For a journalist, it feels strange to begin with a disclaimer, but that’s what I’ll do here. The reason is simple: This blog post is skewed. Why? because, if the oil and gas industry were to get on a teeter-totter with the pile of documentation showing that they may not be looking out for peoples’ health and safety concerns, they would be sitting sky-high on the up end, feet dangling helplessly in the air.
About 100 demonstrators gathered at New York’s State capital on Thursday, intent on pressuring state lawmakers to probe more deeply into potential health and environmental impacts caused by hydraulic fracturing. In a nutshell, hydraulic fracturing — known colloquially as fracking — is a method of natural gas extraction that involves drilling a well, installing a concrete casing, and injecting high pressure water and a slurry of chemicals and grit into the well to release tiny gas particles embedded in the rock, usually shale. What concerns most detractors of the practice isn’t necessarily the drilling itself, but the proprietary brew of chemicals used in the process, which the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York says is perfectly safe. But aside from the chemicals used for drilling, new concerns have been raised, not only about the amount of water the practice consumes, but also concerning the impact of radioactive particles released from deep underground.
“We were urging [state lawmakers] to expand the scope of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement,” said demonstration organizer Ben Perkus, 42, shortly after the rally was held. “There’s nothing in there about the health impacts–it doesn’t address wastewater disposal; it doesn’t address water quality impacts.”
Ever since the New York State Legislature put the kibosh on hydraulic fracturing last August, the issue has continued to lurk below the surface, popping up occasionally in the news, or, as seen in Albany this week, as gentle, peacefully-assembled reminders from the public. State lawmakers are scheduled to finish reviewing the impact study by June, but there is growing concern that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into fracking’s potential to cause harm.
Hydraulic fracturing for the purposes of natural gas extraction isn’t a new practice. Halliburton began its rise to household name status when it fracked its first commercial gas well in 1949. A rapid uptick in drilling came after passage of a Bush era energy reform — the Energy Policy Act of 2005 — which exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of new wells have sprouted across the country, often in rural areas with hazy regulations or little means for enforcement. Such has been the case in Pennsylvania, where state regulatory officers have been unable to keep up with the demand for inspections. (The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has ramped up enforcement efforts recently, and has made public information more easily accessible, but there are still less than 200 inspectors handling a caseload of more than 60,000 productive gas wells across the state. That’s more than 300 wells per inspector. How many work days are there in a year?) The same could have been the case in New York but for one thing. While most of the shale eligible for natural gas drilling is located in the state’s rural Finger Lakes region, it also lay beneath the Delaware River portion of New York City‘s vast water supply system. As the most populous urban center in the U.S., it’s not difficult to see how the issue quickly came onto the radar of a few million excitable urban New Yorkers.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Marcellus Shale Formation — a sprawling natural gas treasure trove deep beneath New York, Pennsylvania, West Virgina, Ohio, Kentucky and parts of Virginia and Tennessee — has the potential to produce 262 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. DOE also says that one trillion cubic feet of natural gas is enough to heat 15 million homes for a year. The economic potential, as well as the prospect of becoming less dependent upon foreign fossil fuel resources, mean that Marcellus is a pretty name not only to DOE, but also to an ambitious gas development industry.
But while job creation and a fuel that burns cleaner than other petroleum products is attractive to many — including residents of economically-depressed rural areas eager to collect royalty money — the number of chemicals used in the extraction process begs the question, how much cleaner is it? A massive amount of documentation has been produced by the EPA, DOE, and independent studies commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute and other stakeholders, but even that only scratches the surface. For example, a comprehensive study has not been completed concerning the impacts of fracking upon available freshwater supply, or on the air quality impacts of trucking wastewater to treatment facilities. At a time when water supplies are stretched thin and rising carbon emissions are always cause for anxiety, these are significant concerns. Even though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, how dirty is the process to get it out of the ground? Do the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa?
From radioactive byproducts dredged up from deep underground to diesel fuel, to a mile-long list of other chemicals, there is plenty to make people worry about water supply impacts, contaminated fisheries, and air pollution. The New York Times recently published an investigative article that points out, among other things, that the gas industry’s reliance upon standard sewage treatment plants to remove radioactive waste from fracking effluent isn’t cutting the mustard. Federal, state and even local governments are weighing in on fracking. In Wales, NY, a small town — population 2,900 — outside of Buffalo, New York, city officials are calling for an outright ban on fracking within their city limits.
Although a slow foil to the rampant growth of natural gas drilling over the past several years, the forces of investigative journalism, public discontent and aggressive politicking seemed have joined to prod lawmakers into slowing down the industry enough to get a better look at its risks. But for something being touted as the 21st Century gold rush, that may be difficult. Oil and gas industry PR flacks have boundless resources at their disposal, and are quick to attempt debunking even the most solidly fact-supported claims against fracking.
For his part, Perkus sees the small demonstration in Albany as a step forward. “People came from all corners of the state,” he said. “It was encouraging to see that there were a number of upstate and downstate legislators — even a senator — who champion the same things we do.” He pointed out that although fracking wasn’t on the day’s legislative agenda, several lawmakers, including Barbara Lifton (D-Ithica), came out of session to speak to the group. “They’re listening.”