I’ve been trying to find the right words to link this issue to peace, but the words elude me, and the issue is too important, both locally and globally, to not be addressed immediately. I can say with confidence that wholesale despoilment of the environment is not in the least conducive to peace; countries that have experienced such high rates of despoliation, such as Haiti, Nigeria, and Pakistan, are some of the most troubled places on earth. Trading clean water for energy is a bad deal for all concerned but the exploiters. Here’s a video of a well being “fracked”, and here’s one of what sometimes happens at these sites.
The Marcellus Shale is a Devonian period geological formation that extends from Albany, New York, to Ohio and south, through part of New Jersey, and most of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Early estimates that the formation contained relatively small amounts of natural gas have been revised upward in recent years; in November 2008, Terry Engelder, a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University, changed his estimate, based upon examination of drilling samples, to 363 trillion cubic feet of recoverable resource, which would be enough to supply US consumption for at least fourteen years.
So that’s a good thing, even a great thing, you may be thinking. Natural gas burns cleanly, and we don’t have to import it. Think again. While we need to develop sustainable sources of energy, we find that extracting natural gas from shale is not an acceptable answer, especially not in watershed areas; it requires a process called hydraulic fracturing, variously referred to as “fracing”, “frac-ing”, or “fracking”; the method has been known since the 1940s, but has lately become more widely used. Hydraulic fracturing has been employed to extract gas from the Barnett shale in Texas, where it has caused documented problems with groundwater.
Millions of gallons of water, combined with surfactants, sand, plastic beads, and at least 55 chemicals are pumped deep into the ground at extremely high pressures, fracturing the rock to release the gas. All of that water eventually returns to the surface, or leaks into local aquifers, along with the pollutants. To compound the problem, Marcellus Shale deposits contain high levels of pyrite, uranium, and radon gas, all of which are toxic, and all of which would be released into the environment.
In 2005, Congress exempted this method of extraction, which most often uses horizontal drilling, from compliance with the Clean Water Act; and drilling companies claim that there is little danger of water contamination. Gee, where have we heard that before? And if there’s no danger, why was an exemption required?
The drilling companies want to keep the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing a proprietary secret, even though 35 out of a list of 55 material safety data sheets (MSDS) obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram were chemicals known to be hazardous to humans, and three of the polymers used to thicken the fracturing fluid are known carcinogens.
Here’s a quote from an article on hydraulic fracturing by Mike Lee, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on December 7, 2008: The health effects from other chemicals range from skin irritation to cancer. One chemical can cause “difficulty breathing, twitching, lung congestion, paralysis and coma.” That doesn’t sound too hazardous, does it?
Or how about this, from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: The COGCC has documented examples where improper construction of wells has polluted groundwater. We do know of at least one case where a nurse fell critically ill after treating a worker who spilled fracturing fluid on himself.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, columnist for The New York Times, published an excellent article on drilling in the Catskills last Monday, and the wonderful folks at Catskill Mountainkeeper are working hard to keep this dubious development out of the Catskills, so please join their organization and help them in their valuable work. We urge you all to write the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Governor, your Senator, Congressman, and local politicians demanding that the drilling not be permitted here.
Barbara J. Fiala, Broome County Executive, is one local politician in favor of the drilling, despite evidence that it may cause great harm to the environment. She may believe that the jobs the drilling may create outweigh the risks; we would point out that the gas companies typically bring crews with them, and create few local jobs. In any case, she, and other pro-drilling proponents are hard at work, urging the DEC to complete the supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (sGEIS); until that statement is released, no drilling can proceed. Public comments are an important part of the DEC’s process, so send them your comments today.
Oh, one last thing. The companies seeking drilling permits are, to the best of my knowledge: Chesapeake Energy, Chief Oil and Gas, Range Resources, and Rex Energy.