Sunday, September 11, 2011

Becoming a Fractivist

Fracking makes water disappear…

It will no longer swirl with tadpoles
or ripple with fish. …

It will no longer ascend into clouds,
freeze into snowflakes,
melt into revulets,
cascade over rocks,
turn with the tides,
soak into soil,
rise through roots
or flow from your tap….

Never again, fog mist frost ice dew or rain.
It’s gone.

Not that you’d want it to come back;

it’s poisonous now.

From Meditation on Water Sandra Steingraber

I went last Wednesday to the Shale Gas Outrage protest at 13th and Arch.

At the beginning of the summer I knew almost nothing about shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, “fracking.” I’d heard just a little about the governor’s shale gas commission, and was aware the commission was made almost entirely of people from natural gas companies, or politicians whose elections were funded by them. That seemed a little worrisome.

More worrisome were their recommendations, released in late July. The Inquirer said the commission’s recommendations “endorse the industry's call for modernizing the regulatory structure of shale-drilling and creating uniform local zoning rules to streamline approval processes. The commission also endorsed boosting markets for the fuel with incentives for using natural gas in transportation, electric generation, and manufacturing.”

I’ve begun to notice that “modernizing regulation”  is code for “let them do what they want.” And “incentives” are usually a form of corporate welfare, hidden under the mantra of “creating jobs.”

I have a thing about clean water. It’s one of those gifts God gave us that we need to value, protect, watch out for, celebrate. I grieve for those around the globe whose water supply has been damaged – by mining in fragile places, by man-made droughts, by unwise farming practices.

So I started wondering: what does fracking do to water?

Google “fracking,” and you’ll find plenty of industry-sponsored sites that assure you natural gas is the cleanest form of fossil fuel known to man, and nothing bad can ever happen in the drilling process.

Scene from Gasland
Look a little harder, and you’ll find scores of alarming studies that say the simple act of fracturing shale carries immediate, unavoidable risks: the fracturing itself opens new passageways for underground gases to travel, allowing methane and natural, deep radioactive substances to migrate into aquafers.

But that’s just the start of the dangers: fracturing fluid, pumped into wells for a host of reasons, can contain chemicals like cyanide, arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, strontium, and hundreds of other chemicals known to cause cancer, nerve damage, organ failure, birth defects. Any of those can migrate into drinking water.

And as part of the process, some of the fluids pumped in are drawn out again, then need to be disposed of. In Pennsylvania, disposal hasn’t been monitored well. Those fracking fluids – millions of gallons - have been dumped in streams, on fields. Or held in open pits where migrating birds land and die. Pits that overflow when rains are heavy. Pits that allow the fluids to seep into the ground around them. And large quantities of fracking fluids are delivered to municipal water treatment plants that admit they’re not equipped to treat them.

It takes six million gallons of water to frack one well. There are already almost four thousand wells in Pennsylvania, with tens of thousands more planned. Already, in other states, hydrofracking has pumped vast quantities of clean water into shale gas wells. Some of that water will stay deep beneath the earth’s surface, beneath any aquifer, and no one knows if it will ever surface again. Some will migrate through the shale, surfacing miles from where it started, carrying lingering contaminants into previously clean water. And some, millions of gallons, is already on the surface to stay: toxic, polluted, radioactive water no one should ever drink again.

There are other dangers, other environmental concerns, but it's the water that concerns me most.

Imagine being told not to shower because the water from your showerhead might make your house blow up.

Imagine being told not to eat from plates washed in your water because they might be radioactive.

Imagine not being told, and experiencing months, even years, of headaches, rashes, mystery illnesses, caused by undisclosed, invisible chemicals in your water.

There’s been a moratorium on shale gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed. The natural gas industry is confident that ban will be lifted. In fact, that’s the point behind all the ads and billboards about how clean and safe shale gas is. The Delaware Basin River Commission, which regulates use of the watershed, recently permitted exploratory wells in the region, with the promise that rules would be in place by October 21, permitting shale gas drilling.

Photo from StateImpact PA
Fifteen million people drink water from the Delaware River basin. New York City, Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington.

I went to the Shale Gas Outrage protest Wednesday out of curiosity more than outrage. I had a sense that I should learn more, that maybe fracking should be better regulated, that certainly it should be taxed.

I came away convinced, as most independent researchers suggest, that fracking needs to stop, completely. The industry knows how to drill the wells and extract the gas; they don’t know how to return the water to drinkable state, they don’t know how to keep gas and fracking fluids from migrating, and they don’t know how to cap the wells completely when they’re done. Every well already drilled will be a waste-water nightmare on into the future.

My head is full of scary facts. I had not seen the movie Gasland, but went to a screening as part of my two day frack-fact marathon.  I had heard about the faucet lit on fire for the film. But it wasn’t just one faucet. It was faucet after faucet, and a stream as well – all water that was clean and clear until shale gas drilling nearby.  Josh Fox, the producer, was available at the screening for questions. He’s been accused by the natural gas industry of fabricating and exaggerating his stories. He said, sadly, “There are too many stories, and they’re all the same.”

Photo from
Wednesday’s protest was held just outside of the Shale Gas industry conference, and many of those inside the conference stood just inside glass doors and windows to watch the protestors outside. Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, described the protesters as hysterical extremists, distorting the facts and engaging in  “unfettered fearmongering.” While he admitted “incidents in which natural gas leaked into drinking water wells,” he also said “tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of landowner wealth have been created by drilling in Pennsylvania.”

In fact, real jobs created by the fracking industry here in Pennsylvania are far fewer than promised, often dangerous, and won’t last long. And the landowners present at the protest were quick to describe the devastation to their way of life, the loss of property value, and frightening health consequences they’ve experienced from leasing to corporations like Chesapeake Energy.  

McClendon failed to mention that his company has already been fined millions of dollars for reckless drilling, drilling without a permit, shoddy containment and improper discharge of fracking water, illegal withdrawals of water from public water supplies. Apparently, his company, and others, do their work as cheaply as possible, knowing whatever fines imposed will be just a fraction of what it would have cost to do the job safely.

And in fact, many geologists, drilling experts, and other scientists are saying there’s no way to do the job safely. I came away thinking that fracking is like playing Russian roulette with the health of the millions who depend on our waterways, but as I’ve done more research in the few days since, it’s occurred to me that in Russian roulette, there’s at least the possibility of escape.

Wendell Berry recently wrote: 

“We are destroying our country - I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.”

“…How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.”

I’m not personally, actively, destroying our land, our water, our air. But have I submitted to it? Voted for it? Rewarded it?

I’m not sure, but the more I learn, the more I find myself wondering what Berry means about “not being radical enough, or not being thorough enough.”

The deadline for the Delaware River Basin decision is October 21.

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