Hydrofracking has become quite the controversial topic for New York. With the Marcellus Shale right below our feet, gas companies are touting the long-term economic benefits. The 5 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped in the rock could power our nation at current energy demands for close to 100 years. Even more tantalizing is the possibility of hydrofracking to produce enough natural gas to lower the price of natural gas from $5 per cubic foot to $2. In Pennsylvania alone, 9,000 new jobs were created in 2009 in the hydrofracking industry. More jobs, more gas, what could possibly go wrong?
In all actuality, many things can, and have, gone wrong with hydraulic fracturing. First of all, we are talking about an intense practice of horizontal and vertical drilling in the Marcellus Shale beds. What happens is quite scary. Picture this: dozens of trucks come in to your small town with drilling equipment, strip the forested land and drill deep into the Earth's crust to get their hands on the precious geologic gold which is the gas. But it does not end there. When the drillers come, so do millions of gallons of water, along with a slurry of chemicals and sand. The millions of gallons of water and chemicals are pumped into the crevices created from drilling and help dissolve the shale beds to release the natural gas.
Your next question should be, what kinds of chemicals are we talking about here? Well, let's see, who wants carcinogens in their drinking water? Any takers for toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, methane and many different ethers? I don't know about the rest of New York, but I sure do not want to drink water that might be tainted with those ingredients. Think about how those chemicals are taken up in the ground water. In many small towns, such as the Town of Caroline in Tompkins County, N.Y., many residents rely on well water for drinking. The ramifications from contaminated ground water would be a domino effect. First the water, then the fish, then subsoils and plants and then animals would be affected in negative ways.
In September 2009, 8,000 gallons of drilling fluids spilled into creeks and fields
in Dimock, Pa. To go along with that, one study estimates that the concentration of petroleum distillates used in one well fracking is enough to contaminate 650 million gallons of water! That's a whole lot of water, and in these times when droughts are ravaging the American West and the Horn of Africa, this is no joke. In fact, both toluene and benzene are known carcinogens, and toluene can cause death if directly inhaled. The American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1948 stated that "it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero." Believe it or not, this is just the very tip of the iceberg of hydrofracking's many negative implications on quality of life for people and the environment.
As if the ground water contamination was not scary enough, risks of explosions and loss of forests and wildlife is yet another threat. If drilling occurred in the Town of Caroline, over 2,500 acres of land could be developed for well pads, and 60 miles of roads for access to the well pads would have to be built. This is a real problem for rural towns that depend on their open land not only for farming, but for tourism and for the local wildlife such as white-tail deer and hosts of water fowl. If these lands were to be taken over by the drillers, the wildlife would also be gone. Noises from the drilling would frighten animals.
What is really sad is that even after the well is drilled to its limit and no more gas can be extracted in an economically sound manner, the deer and rabbits will not return. The land could be "reclaimed," and attempts can be made to make it look the way it was prior to drilling, but something much more precious than shale gas would be lost. From there, forests would be fragmented, which harms trees and leaves little to no protection from wind and the elements for birds and mammals. Also, deforestation from drilling will result in soil erosion, which will be painful for farmers who rely on fertile soil for planting their corn and a myriad of other crops.
Natural gas extraction via fracking has a larger carbon footprint than coal extraction — by 20 percent. If you add up the deforestation plus the increased traffic due to shipping drilling equipment, it comes as little to no surprise. But gas companies like to brag that natural gas is cleaner
and will help reduce climate change. I beg to differ.
Gov. Cuomo lifts fracking ban?
I want to stress the main point that angers me the most: gas companies are not required to make public what chemicals they use to extract shale gas. This is thanks in part to the Halliburton Loophole of 2005, when the EPA was basically stripped of its authority to regulate hydrofracking. Essentially this means companies can pump whatever they want into their wells and leave the rest for us to deal with. This cannot happen, but it very well might, since Gov. Cuomo lifted the moratorium on hydrofracking
in New York. This is not just bad news for environmentalists and small town communities. It's bad for everyone, because we all need water to survive.
It seems to me that this hydrofracking for the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, of which only 30 to 50 percent can be sequestered, is merely a bandage on the huge wound which is climate change. We don't want to change. It's that simple. Oil has given us a century of being able to cross oceans through the stratosphere, to power our computers and of course our cars. But maybe, just maybe we have to change our ways. Just because we are past peak oil (hello, $4 at the pump) does not mean we should add insult to injury.
Shouldn't our government urge gas and electric companies to work with green technology to power our society? Wind is renewable; so is solar. True, they will not ease our transition away from oil any more than natural gas. But it's a start, and a vital one at that.
I think it makes no sense to invest millions of gallons of water and drive wildlife away for a low energy return on investment. Maybe natural gas can keep our houses warm for another 100 years. I will not be around then, but future children and grandchildren sure will be. Do we want to leave them with a scarred landscape, a ravaged land riddled with trunks of trees and remnants of drillers' footprints? I want to leave behind a place where there will still be oaks and maples shining in the sun, where clean ponds and rivers are bustling with fish and turtles. Hydrofracking could take that all away, even though proponents insist the environmental effects are overblown and not important. I'm not an expert, but I want to live in a New York that is the Empire State, not the Fracking State.
Photo: lil moe72/Flickr and Augapfel/Flickr