Hydraulic fracturing: Economic boon or environmental blight?

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:45

Local environmentalists oppose hydrofracking, citing potential contamination, By Fran Hardy Sparta — To frack or not to frack? This is the question being hotly debated by oil and gas companies and environmentalists who for years have argued righteously on opposite sides of the issue of hydraulic fracturing (nicknamed hydrofracking), which is a 60-year-old energy stimulation technology. The process involves forcing a mixture of high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals into shale rock deep underground to create fissures that release stores of natural gas that can be pumped to the surface. Energy companies say hydrofracking will lead to plentiful jobs and a dramatic reduction in the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Environmentalists say the practice will contaminate fresh drinking water supplies and pollute ground water for years to come. Local opponents gather Sparta resident Susan Williams, of civilconversations.com, launched a campaign last Thursday evening at the Sparta United Methodist Church to inform citizens about the issues surrounding hydrofracking. She claims the process has the potential to create an environmental holocaust and presents imminent danger to the health of those living near drilling locations. Over 30 people attended Williams’ event last week, which was co-sponsored by the Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, and Transition of Newton. The group showed a 2010 Academy Award nominated documentary “Gasland” which traces writer-director Josh Fox’s experiences with a natural gas company who offered his family $100,000 to lease their Milanville, Penn., land for drilling. Fox traveled the country, investigating natural gas drilling methods and their impact on the environment and on the health of those who live near drilling sites, and became an avid opponent of hydrofracking. Williams said, “I felt compelled to present this information to as many people as would listen. Our drinking waters are literally being poisoned and the gases emitted into the air have more greenhouse gas impact than originally thought. While natural gas is being touted as a clean fuel, nothing could be further from the truth. I realize that we need electricity and other forms of energy. However, in the end, we can have our carbon fuels but lose our drinking water. Water is from where all life begins and without it, all life will end. That simple!” Williams has signed on with Food and Water Watch, who along with other environmental groups have concerns about the impact of hydrofracking in eastern Pennsylvania, northwest New Jersey and southwest New York because of the Delaware River Watershed. They fear the chemicals used in the fracturing process can contaminate the river basin ground water as well as the river, which supplies drinking water to more than 15 million people across four states. Protests in Pennsylvania Natural gas drilling is a growing industry in Pennsylvania. The state sits squarely atop the giant Marcellus Shale Formation, containing ultra-deep oil and gas deposits stretching from West Virginia to New York. Some say the drilling has provided a much needed boost to the state’s economy through jobs and payouts from the energy companies to local farmers in the form of leasing and royalties for the mineral rights to their land. But while some land owners are relishing these financial windfalls, others are complaining about water pollution resulting from the chemicals pumped underground in the fracking process. Some residents of Dimock, Penn., even complain of flammable tap water, due to a high concentration of methane gas. Because of these growing concerns, Pennsylvania is considered 'ground zero’ for the hydrofracking debate. Various protests have sprung up across the state over the last week, with citizens and activists telling their legislators and the energy companies, “Don’t frack with our water!” On June 8 a sit-in type rally was held outside the governor’s office in Harrisburg with around 75 protestors demanding a meeting with Governor Tom Corbett. “Gasland” writer-director Josh Fox was the main speaker. On June 13 protestors rallied at a Department of Energy Advisory Board hearing in Washington, Penn. A call to action urged citizens of the region to stand up for “clean water, clean air, and a frack-free future.” New York and New Jersey more cautious New Jersey and New York have been more cautious in their acceptance of drilling and their state assemblies are attempting to put the brakes on hydrofracking until more research is done. New Jersey and New York opponents say “Frack, no!” On March 14, the New Jersey State Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that places a moratorium on hydrofracking, until the Environmental Protection Agency can complete studies and issue findings on its effects. The bill was received in the senate and referred to the state Environment and Energy Committee, which has now also passed its own version of a ban on hydrofracking. The bill has gone back to the senate but has not yet been brought to the floor for a vote. Food and Water Watch, has begun a petition drive to move the bill forward for a vote and to encourage Governor Christy to sign it once it does. Williams said they will also be approaching local town councils and environmental commissions to pass resolutions in support of hydrofracking bans. Just last week, the New York State Assembly passed a bill which would ban all new permits for hydrofracking until June 1, 2012. The moratorium on drilling is intended to give the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation time to complete a study of the techniques used in hydrofracking, a practice which has been debated in the assembly for three years while the study has been ongoing. The economic perspective Hydraulic fracturing has been used by the natural gas and oil industry since the 1940s. It has become a key element of natural gas development worldwide and is used in nearly all natural gas and oil wells drilled in the U.S. today. But until recently, the vast natural gas deposits that experts knew were lurking in deep shale formations were thought to be unrecoverable. Now, through the use of hydrofracking and sophisticated horizontal drilling techniques, large quantities of natural gas is being extracted from these deep shale deposits and pumped to the surface. Oil and gas companies claim that modern hydraulic fracturing is a safe, highly engineered and controlled procedure which has the potential to not only dramatically reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign fuel imports, but also to significantly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, making it much cleaner than coal. With the addition of hundreds of jobs at each drill sight across the country, oil and gas producers say that deep shale gas formation development is critical to America’s energy needs and economic renewal. The environmental perspective Environmentalists say that while there may be potential economic gains from capturing natural gas trapped in deep shale deposits, the method of forcing a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to create fissures in the rocks to release the natural gas can also poison water supplies. As of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed there had been no documented cases of drinking water contamination from hydrofracking fluids. Despite homeowner complaints, the research on the impact of fracking on water wells near drilling sites was slow in coming. However, a new study completed this year by Duke University environmental scientist, Robert Jackson, sampled water from 60 such wells and found evidence for natural gas contamination in those within a kilometer of new natural gas drilling sites. Of 51 of the 60 wells tested, small amounts of methane gas were detected. Although trace amounts of methane is not unusual in ground water found in certain areas of Pennsylvania, researchers discovered that the methane detected in water wells near natural gas drill sites was fossil natural gas, which could only have come from the deep Marcellus Shale. This discovery is significant because it marks the first direct link between drinking water contamination and fracking. The political perspective As with many issues, hydrofracking proponents and critics tend to line up along party lines. A 2005 move by the Bush administration to exempt the oil and gas industry from key federal air and water environmental regulations, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, further fuels the partisan fire. Those on the right herald the move, saying opening doors for the oil and gas industry rather than imposing further restrictions will bring the economic benefits of more jobs and the potential for national energy independence. Those on the left call the move, “the Halliburton Loophole”, saying Dick Cheney’s former connection with the company caused the Bush administration to give the oil and gas industry a pass. Bills were introduced into the House and the Senate in June of 2009 to repeal this exemption, but have not yet moved forward. What’s next? The U.S. Department of Energy has now formed a special task force whose goal is to improve the safety and environmental impacts of hydrofracking, including how to dispose of the voluminous amounts of wastewater created in the process. The task force will also examine how to ensure the proper sealing of wells to prevent ground water contamination. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced the task force and emphasized that, “America’s vast natural gas resources can generate many new jobs and provide significant environmental benefits, but we need to ensure that we harness these resources safely.” Susan Williams can be contacted at dhjps100@gmail.com.