What the Frack?

Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas Endangers Water, Atmosphere, and Lives

Imagine holding a lit match to the water streaming from your kitchen faucet and seeing flames shoot out. This sci-fi scenario is actually happening in rural homes in Colorado and other states. This ignitable, methane-laced drinking water was created by a new process of drilling for natural gas called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The story behind the flames in the sink is an all-too-common tale in today’s capitalist-dominated world. It is another destructive example of the drive for profit riding roughshod over the environment and working people’s lives. It’s also a tale of government and big business collusion, which is now being confronted by a growing grassroots movement.

Shattering The Earth For Energy

Horizontal fracking was developed in the ’90s by the energy giant Halliburton. It extracts gas locked in shale thousands of feet below ground. A well is drilled to bedrock and then extended horizontally for miles. Water containing acid and other toxins — exactly which are a “trade secret” — is forced down under extreme pressure, causing the rock to break and releasing gas, which flows to the surface.

This process has triggered a huge upsurge in production, with an incredible 85,235 new wells since 2003. Starting in the less populous West and the Southeast, the most recent target is the Marcellus shale formation stretching from West Virginia through New York. This region is the largest reservoir of natural gas in the country. It also lies below the nation’s largest naturally filtered watershed, the Delaware River Basin. It provides drinking water for 15 million people, including the residents of New York City and Philadelphia.

A ‘Greener’ Alternative — NOT!

Natural gas has been hyped as cleaner energy. But the truth is that fracking is dirty and fraught with perils.

Each fracturing episode, done multiple times for each well, consumes up to nine million gallons of water, rife with hazardous chemicals. Half the contaminated water stays trapped below ground. The rest returns to the surface, now also heavy with salts and radioactive minerals. There is currently no technology for making this water usable or safe. It is dumped into abandoned wells and open pits, where it threatens the clean water supply and kills animals that drink there.

The shattered bedrock is geologically unstable. Earthquakes in Texas drilling regions have registered 4.0 on the Richter scale.

Fracking pollutes the air as well. The ozone generated at rural drilling pads duplicates the smog level of Los Angeles. Today in Fort Worth, the hydrocarbons from drilling equal that of all the area’s automobiles. It’s true that burning gas results in about half the greenhouse emissions of other fossil fuels. But because drilling and trucking gas consumes so much oil, and with the leakage of raw methane into the air, natural gas drilled by this method is an equal or even greater contributor to global warming.

Government Collusion With Industry

Despite environmental devastation and inevitable drilling and transporting accidents and spills, fracking is exempt from the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. This green light to pollute was engineered by energy-industry buddy Vice President Cheney during the Bush years. President Obama has kept the go-ahead signal on by opposing a moratorium on drilling in Pennsylvania and New York.

State governments short of funds are jumping in the pockets of the energy moguls as well. Pennsylvania has allowed drilling on state lands. In New York, the government has leased mineral rights on vast tracts, anticipating tax revenues from fracking.

Energy industry hacks have exploited the economic devastation of rural areas, pressuring poor landowners to allow drilling. They pit city against countryside, and the claim to create jobs and cheaper energy against the environment. Their partial success in polarizing people on the issue is countered by growing awareness of fracking’s dangers and the damage it’s already caused.

Resistance On The Rise

When the New York state government, eager to cash in on the bonanza, issued a draft environmental impact statement minimizing the risks, concerned residents flocked to hearings and community meetings in protest. Thousands have signed online petitions calling for the statement’s withdrawal and against opening the region to fracking.

The only sane alternative is planned, renewable energy. One of the many negatives of fracking is that widespread use will delay — again — the development of safe, renewable energy sources. Options exist that won’t drain the world of fossil fuels that take millions of years to generate, and threaten the earth itself at their current rate of use. The technology for solar energy, wind, and tides, for example, could readily be advanced and applied. But these sources will never be used on a mass scale in an economy driven by profit, with its inevitable waste and toxicity.

The incredible risks inherent in pulverizing bedrock for natural gas make it obvious that corporate profiteers can’t be entrusted with humanity’s and the environment’s safety.

Don’t leave our lives and future in the hands of the frackers!

Demand nationalization of the entire energy industry under workers’ and community control.

Push for development and widespread use of renewable energy with national planning and international collaboration.

And join with others opposed to fracking by signing onlinepetition.

This article first appeared on the Freedom Socialist Party website.

Stephen Durham is the organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party in Harlem, NYC, and a passionate advocate for environmental justice. Read other articles by Stephen.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on December 16th, 2010 at 7:35am #

    Don’t leave our lives and future in the hands of the frackers!

    Demand nationalization of the entire energy industry under workers’ and community control.

    Push for development and widespread use of renewable energy with national planning and international collaboration. Stephen

    Sounds good to me and I see no downside risk. Careful of the darkside strong they are and cap and trade.

  2. Rehmat said on December 16th, 2010 at 7:49am #

    As a power-generation engineer – I can, without any doubt, that nuclear power-generation is the most environmental safe method. Though costly to build than the hydraulic, coal or gas power-generating plant – it’s running cost is much cheaper than the other alternatives.

    Maybe, that’s the reason the USrael doesn’t want Iran to build nuclear plants.

  3. bozh said on December 16th, 2010 at 9:17am #

    once people are addicted to sybaritic way of life, augmenting or maintaining it, comes ahead of any other consideration.
    unfortunately, such people have all the econo-military-governmental powers.
    these powers can be wrested from them only one way. there are now ways–there is only one way: form a second political party! tnx

  4. Charlie said on December 16th, 2010 at 11:05am #

    A similar drilling technique is used with oil extraction, although it does not involve fracturing rock strata. It does, however, use massive amounts of saltwater injected under pressure to force the oil out of the underground reserve. Geological and environmental issues similar to those cited in the article predictably occur, such as subsidence zones and groundwater contamination, primarily through saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers.

    Although I too am alarmed by the environmentally destructive practices of the energy giants, I am not convinced that they are entirely to blame. They are reprehensibly driven by profit at any cost, but aren’t they simply responding to an apathetic public that adamantly refuses to alter its energy consumption practices?

    The deployment of alternative energy strategies should begin at the level of the individual. Go solar, geothermal, wind-powered–whatever works in your area. We cannot take the high road against the energy giants until we can tell them to get lost. We have structured our lives to make these corrupt corporations indispensable. Telling them that they’re corrupt and naughty and should be playing nice won’t work until we have the upper hand. And as long as we’re consuming fossil fuels wastefully, we’ll never have the upper hand.

    Rehmat, I agree that nuclear power is the most environmentally benign of the major power generation technologies available, but in a larger context, it loses some of its appeal. For instance, American nuke plants are owned and operated by energy giants but regulated by the government. It is a complex and difficult relationship that frequently benefits neither and often leads them to be adversaries rather than partners working together for public safety.

    In addition, the US has no credible plan for the storage of high-level waste such as spent nuclear fuel. Yucca Mtn. isn’t going to happen. It was already 10-15 years behind schedule and many billions of dollars over budget, and it still isn’t available. On-site storage of spent fuel has many drawbacks and should never have been considered for long-term storage.

    I think nuclear power may be a viable option in some countries other than the United States, but the current technological, waste management, and regulatory structures here make it less desirable than even fossil-fuel plants. I am reminded of the (in)famous comment by the nuclear power industry back in the 1950s when nuclear power was first being proposed. An industry official said the electricity from nuke plants would be “too cheap to meter.” That hasn’t exactly panned out as advertised, and I see no reason to think that more nuke plants would be able to make good on that promise or that the industry execs are any better at foretelling the future.

    I would feel better about nuclear power if the US would model itself after France, where scientists–not corporate execs and government pencil-pushers–largely oversee the deployment and operation of nuclear power. I am not pro or con on nuke power. I simply want the national debate to be intelligent and thorough. However, I suspect that–like all critical debates in the US–it will be carried out by agenda-driven, ignorant boobs who are simply mouthing bumper-sticker slogans to pander to one constituency or another.

  5. Keith said on December 16th, 2010 at 5:59pm #

    @ REHMAT
    In view of the fact that nuclear power produces nuclear waste products, some of which are high level waste, extremely deadly to human and other life forms, that some of these wastes have a half life in excess of 10,000 years and will be deadly for well over 100,000 years, and in view of the fact that there is at present no known way to dispose of this extremely deadly byproduct that could reasonably be expected to be fail safe for over 100,000 years, and that we have already produced and continue to produce this most perilous threat to life on this planet, how can you claim that “nuclear power-generation is the most environmental safe method”?

  6. hayate said on December 16th, 2010 at 8:50pm #

    Another problem with nuclear power is it is by default a corporate/guv undertaking. I don’t think we’ll see home reactors any time soon. This leaves the public with the same vulnerabilities and reliances upon corrupt business and guv as we are now.

    That aint the solution.

    The solution entails people being able to be self reliant on the majority of the power needs. Self reliant in a way that does not wreck the environment for future generations.

    At present, there is no chance of that from nuclear. Perhaps in the future something will be found, but right now, reliance upon nuclear is a mistake that will cost us immeasurably into the future.