The practice of hydraulic fracturing is spreading across the US and around the world. This practice combines all that is destructive of the Earth’s environment. The dangers are summarized below.
US Capitalism’s Strategic Vision
“Energy independence.” This is a mantra increasingly chanted by virtually all prominent politicians in the US. It means not having to import energy resources (oil) from foreign countries, especially in the Mid East. With the failure of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, this is an important part of US capitalism’s global goal. A key component of this goal is increased exploitation of the natural gas that exists in shale rock deposits deep underground in many parts of the United States. In order to to tap into these deposits, a massive refinement of the technique of hydraulic fracturing is necessary.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a process whereby rock formation underground is fractured by applying hydraulic pressure. In the case of the US, the modern fracking is done to shale, which often contains natural gas (largely composed of methane). The shale has natural cracks. A hole is bored often several miles deep, and then the hole is bored horizontally for great distances. The hole is supposedly sealed with a steel tube surrounded by cement, holes are blasted in the horizontal part and then fluid is pumped down the well at high pressure. This fractures the shale, releasing the gas.
In the United States, over 1,000 fracked wells have been drilled per year in recent years.
A typical fracking job requires about 3 million gallons of fluid, of which some 98-99% is water and sand. The rest is “proprietary” fluids, meaning that the manufacturers won’t disclose all the contents. We do know that hydrochloric acid and other toxins are used.
Of the chemicals we know are used, environmental biologist Theo Colborn states, “more than 75% of the chemicals on the list can affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system and the liver. Over half the chemicals show effects in the brain and nervous system. These first four categories represent effects that would likely be expressed upon immediate exposure, such as eye and skin irritation, nausea and/or vomiting, asthma, coughing, sore throat, flu- like symptoms, tingling, dizziness, headaches, weakness, fainting, numbness in extremities, and convulsions.” (http://www.endocrinedisruption.org/files/NaturalGasManuscriptPDF09_13_10.pdf)
Problems with Fracking
Already, water depletion is a growing problem world wide. In the US, for instance, the Oglalla aquifer in the midwest (one of the world’s largest) is being depleted at a rate of 6% or 12 billion cubic meters per year. (http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/WORMKA/) It is projected that by 2015, some 18,700 acre feet of water will be required for fracked wells. (One acre foot is approximately 326,000 gallons.) While most of the water from underground aquifers is used for agriculture, the fracking process contributes to this depletion.
The oil industry claims that there is no danger of water pollution from fracked wells. The fact that they have won an exemption from the national Clean Water Drinking Act shows how confident they are about this. In fact, pollution of drinking water is an extremely serious and absolutely unavoidable problem in fracked shale gas wells. This applies to both the fracking fluid as well as leakage of the natural gas once production begins, and it is so for several reasons:
First, these wells are drilled to depths well beyond the water table. It is only after the drilling that the well can be – hopefuly – sealed. When the drill punctures the underground water, inevitably whatever is in that hole will enter the ground water.
Second, the sealing is an uncertain process. The steel pipe is supposedly sealed by a layer of cement around it, which is only about an inch thick. At the extreme depths we are talking about, it is impossible to ensure that the seal between the cement and the pipe is secure and that there are no cracks in the cement.
Third, a fracked shale well is usually expected to be profitable for about seven years. After that, the well is shut down. The gas continues to migrate into the pipe virtually indefinitely, but all cement will ultimately deteriorate. There is no way to maintain the integrity of that well over time; it is impossible. (Once the well is shut down, it becomes in effect a “ward of the state”; the company that drilled the well and profited from it is off the hook.)
About 6-7% of all new fracked wells leak. (http://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Fracking-is-hardly-leakproof-3646458.php). It is expected that in 30 years this will increase to 60%. This results in some obvious signs like brown “drinking” water and being able to light a flame from the water tap when it’s opened. Longer term environmental effects aren’t yet clearly seen. These will inevitably include increased cancer rates as well as birth defects, many to the endocrine system. Many such birth and developmental defects are not immediately obvious, and only appear as weakened immune systems, etc.
Waste Water Disposal
The hundreds of millions of gallons of waste water, which contains various toxins, must be disposed of safely. Initially, the oil companies tried to dispose of this water by taking it to the local sewage treatment plant. These plants are not equipped to handle such large amounts of toxic wastes, so other means have to be found. Meanwhile, the fracked fluid often sits in lined pits by the well. At times, these linings can tear, allowing the waste to leak into the ground. It also evaporates into the air. In addition, the natural drive to limit costs means that companies will (and have) inevitably try to find cheaper ways of getting rid of the waste water – such as dumping it into the nearest river.
In addition to the evaporation problem mentioned above, fracked wells tend to be concentrated in one region. The huge amounts of machinery involved produce ground level ozone. In addition, there are huge numbers of diesel trucks lumbering in and out, which of course produce their own pollution. Colorado – largely rural and mountainous – is usually thought of as an area of pure, clean air. The air in entire regions of the state now has a brown haze as a result of fracking. (To witness, see the video available here: http://www.endocrinedisruption.org/chemicals.videoplayer.php)
Fracking has been demonstrated to create a danger of earthquakes. There are also dangers involving extremely high truck traffic and other problems. There is also serious question as to how financially sustainable the massive investment in these wells will be. According to a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/us/26gas.html?pagewanted=all), ‘analyst from PNC Wealth Management, an investment company, wrote to a contractor in a February e-mail. “Reminds you of dot-coms.”…. “The word in the world of independents is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and the economics just do not work,” an analyst from IHS Drilling Data, an energy research company wrote in an e-mail on Aug. 28, 2009.’
Quality of Life
“Quality of life” is one of those concepts that are normally considered irrelevant, since it is purely a “use value” rather than an “exchange value” in most ways. Most frack jobs are done in rural or semi-rural areas. Millions of people live there – or visit those areas on weekends, vacations, etc. – exactly to enjoy the quiet and calm. This is shattered by fracking – the noise, the dust, the heavy truck traffic, and the lights at the wells, which are on 24/7. The only financial measurement of this is in property values. Some real estate agents have reported difficulty selling property near fracking sites and some studies have reported that homes depending on their own wells that are near fracked wells have had their values depressed by as much as 22%.
From 2007 to 2012, US CO2 “energy related” emissions declined by 22%, leading to an overall reported decline in US greenhouse gas emissions. Probably the biggest single factor in this reported decline was the increased use of natural gas vs. coal in producing electricity. The result is that Corporate America is claiming that fracking is a step in the direction of resolving the looming global warming crisis.
The problem with this claim is that the statistics don’t consider methane emissions. (Methane is the main component of natural gas.) The industry claims that some 1-2% of the natural gas produced at a fracked well is leaked into the environment. In fact, one study found that in a Colorado field some 4% was leaked and another study found some 9% in a Utah field. Methane is considered to be 72 to 100 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Because it breaks down more quickly, it is “only” 25 more potent over 100 years. (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2012/0213/Fracking-study-sends-alert-about-leakage-of-potent-greenhouse-gas)
It should be stressed that this leakage will inevitably tend to increase over time as the cement lining deteriorates and as the bond between the cement and the metal casing weakens. There is also some thought that the fracturing of the shale will ultimately cause the natural gas to migrate up and out of the shale and to the surface. This is not proven at present, but the very fact that this is a possibility shows the irresponsibility of the massive development of fracking.
The other problem is that the increased availability of natural gas and its resultant lower price is cutting across any tendency to invest in renewable sources of energy. This is a very important aspect of the problem.
There has tended to be something of a division of opinion in regions subject to fracking. Many such areas are farming communities, and the family farms are under severe financial pressures in the US. The result is that many of these farmers, desperate for cash, have welcomed the oil companies and the cash these companies pay for the mineral rights under the farmers’ land. Many other residents have organized against fracking for the reasons cited above. The fact that in most cases these areas are rural or semi-rural has meant that the local organizations against fracking have tended to be somewhat isolated.
There is also the role of the non-profit environmental groups to be considered. They have provided resources and much-needed information. However, all too many of them also tend to be connected with the state and federal agencies that are supposed to regulate pollution, etc. In fact, these agencies are almost all controlled to one extent or another by the very industries they are supposed to regulate. In addition, there are the links with the corporate-controlled Democratic Party (and the Republicans to a lesser extent). The result is that these non-profits tend to focus on remaining “players”, on only advocating and using the tactics and strategy that may be considered by at least a wing of the political establishment. Once the Democratic Party takes a decisive position on an environmental issue, these non-profits tend to simply quibble over the details.
Nowhere is capitalism shown to be more destructive, nowhere has it more clearly lived beyond its “sell by” date, than in the environmental issue. And the disaster of hydraulic fracturing brings almost all of the different aspects of this issue together. On top of that, it relates to the issue of US global military and economic strategy.
These looming environmental disasters cry out for sane, environmentally sound economic planning under workers’ control and management. In no other realm is this solution more obvious. It must be admitted, however, that in general socialists tend to have been a bit slow in taking up this issue. The time is past to make up for this.