I decided to research the process of hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of natural gas by watching the movie Gasland which I rented from Netflix. I became very sad and disturbed as I watched the writer and director Josh Fox begin his narration speaking about his home in Pennsylvania. I had visited and spent a lot of time in northeastern PA for over 11 years. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to escape the noise, crowds, and pollution of New York City where I live and work. The families I knew in PA protected their land by designating their acres as protected areas that could not be developed. However while watching this movie I saw that no one’s land is safe from the hands of the government and corporations when it comes to drilling and using it for its resources.
The big drilling companies basically give the landowners the option to lease their land to them; however it is not really an option as they have no other choice other than to accept. According to the power of eminent domain the federal, state and local governments can take private property of anyone as long as they provide some compensation. Since you do not own the mineral rights to your property, you do not take part in any future profits from the production of natural gas. The writer Josh Fox was offered $4750 an acre for his property, but when you calculate the profits that the oil companies would make in the end, this would be pocket change to them. Even if the owners could profit significantly I still think they would prefer to keep their land in its natural state and continue to nurture it and live off the land in an undamaging manner.
One of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing is the contamination of drinking water. In the process a gas well is drilled 8000 feet into the ground. Millions of gallons of water containing up to 596 various chemicals are injected under high pressure into the well which fractures the shale underground and releases the natural gas. Even though the gas wells are at a significant depth, water aquifers for drinking are only about 1000 feet underground and can become contaminated with leaked chemicals from these wells. Hydraulic fracturing also involves drilling horizontally from 1000 to 6000 feet away from the well which further increases its distance and spread underground.
All the waste water that has been separated from the gas during production does not simply disappear but also has to be disposed of. The flowback water that comes up to the surface is called “produced water” which is water left over after the process of fracturing. This water contains volatile organics which creates water pits of sludge. Land farms are created from the manipulation of this sludge. Trucks till the sludge deep into the surrounding ground which eventually dries up and blows away or settles even deeper into the ground. Evaporation sprayers are then used to spray the ground so that some of the remaining water evaporates into the air. The chemicals that are still present are then released into the atmosphere or can fall back down again into acid rain. There are also many storage tanks in which produced water is stored and will remain until a process is put into place for disposal or recycling. According to the EPA pollutants must be processed before they are put back into the earth or surface water. Condensate tanks and compressed air create fumes and release contaminated air around those that live in their vicinity. Independent testing has shown the air to contain carcinogens and neurotoxins 55 to 100 times more than the health standard limit.
Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000 during which a loophole was created that made natural gas drilling companies exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The SDWA was passed by Congress in 1974 to keep drinking water safe from natural and man-made contaminants. The loophole allows gas companies to inject any unsafe toxic materials underground near water supplies without having to reveal the chemicals in the compounds. An independent study was made on the chemicals that are used in the process of hydraulic fracturing. Some of these are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, trichlorobenzene and xylene, all of which are volatile organic compounds. Glycol ethers used in the initial and total life time of the process of fracking are known to cause testicular toxicity, malformation of the embryo, bone marrow depression and hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). Many of these chemicals are also listed as “proprietary” which means they are protected under a patent and therefore are not required to reveal their formulas. Toxic chemicals can then be hidden under this guise.
Local residents on land that is being used for hydraulic fracturing were seeing brown and bubbling water in streams and lakes. Holding an open flame to running water from a faucet actually caused it to burst into flames. A flame placed on some standing water would turn it into a plastic type material. Many of these residents had been complaining of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, loss of taste and breathing problems, including asthma. When they went in for testing benzene and toluene was present in some blood samples, and others showed brain lesions which meant they had experienced some type of brain damage. Even some animals such as cats and horses were losing their fur. According to the drilling companies none of these illnesses or symptoms were proven to be directly related to hydraulic fracturing. They claim that those that are complaining of the hazardous effects of fracturing are not “educated” and that “there is no proof”. There have been 6000 incidents of contaminated water, but no studies have been performed by the DEP or any other organizations for the extent of contamination or overall damage. The drilling companies claim that they have handled each case when it is reported and have provided above ground water tanks to those that are no longer able to use or drink their well water.
I went on www.halliburton.com and read through their lists of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing. In the film it was stated that the drilling companies are not required to reveal the contents of their chemical compounds, however Halliburton had a complete Material Data Safety Sheet on each trademarked additive. I read through the details of BE-3S Bactericide which is a biocide that is used in foam fracturing a process that uses water and nitrogen. It is composed of 2-Monobromo-3-nitrilopropionamide and 2,2 Dibromo-3-nitrilopropionamide. It was listed as toxic to aquatic life, and it causes respiratory, skin and eye irritation and poses an acute health hazard. HAI-OS is a material composed of Propargyl alcohol and Methanol which is used as an acid and corrosion inhibitor. It is listed as carcinogenic, an acute health hazard, and a chronic health and fire hazard. It goes on to list the many side effects and how it can damage the central nervous system, heart, kidneys, and spleen, to name just a few. Obviously these additives are dangerous to those that work in the fracturing process as well as to the residents and wildlife that live near those drilling and storage areas.
When you watch a film like Gasland you worry about your own drinking water. I learned in this film that the industry has already leased thousands of acres for drilling in the Catskills area where the sources for the reservoirs for the New York City watershed are located. This is a very scary thought as these water sources provide water to a population of 15,600,000 people, with 6,800,000 in New York City alone. So far no drilling has begun, possibly because focus and active drilling is still taking place in other locations. We keep hearing that we are too dependent on foreign oil which makes us open to “terrorism”. The argument is that we have the natural resources here so we should utilize them and also provide numerous jobs for the unemployed in our nation. This is true but instead of rushing into a grand scale production of fracturing throughout our untouched and pure lands, more investigation and experimentation should be done before we make people sick and send them to an early grave. Rather than focusing exclusively on hydraulic fracturing more money should be used to develop new safer sources of energy. With the failure of Solyndra, a company that was supported by the government to develop solar energy; there is great skepticism when it comes to further exploration.
This country is always focused on the almighty dollar and there is almost total disregard to the negative effects of obtaining immediate results and gratification. It has been said that there is no perfect source of energy and that all mining processes pose some hazards. One of the arguments is that it is a very small population that is negatively affected by fracturing, and that it is for the greater good of a greater number of people that will benefit from its resources. However I don’t think that the individuals who suffer every day from excruciating headaches and wonder if they will have enough safe water to last in their lifetime would feel the same way.
Gasland. Dir. Josh Fox. Perf. Josh Fox. HBO Documentary Films, 2011. DVD.
Walsh, Bryan. “The Future of Oil.” Time April 9, 2012: 55. Print.