On Aug. 11, a panel convened by the Department of Energy released a report on natural gas “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing), the first time a federal regulatory agency has weighed in on the practice. The report makes no direct policy suggestions but suggests significantly more oversight, including the disclosure of the chemicals being pumped into deep wells. These mixtures have been jealously guarded by energy companies, which consider them trade secrets.
While the panel’s suggestion for more public information about practices is certainly a welcome step, it carefully toes the line of the energy giants pushing for more and further fracking. The report is awash in terms such as “best practices” and “production efficiency,” and its overall thrust is not for clean and sustainable energy but to send a strong word of caution that the drilling industry must improve its public image through increased voluntary compliance and communications. This is hardly surprising given that six of the seven panel members had ties to the natural gas and oil industry, according to a letter signed by 28 scientists (http://bit.ly/qvilsm).
Fracking is a method of rapidly capturing natural gas (methane) that has sat for centuries under shale rock. A stew of chemicals is used to crack open the shale rock, sometimes buried miles underground, and chemical propellants are injected to force the gas out quickly. The fracking “water” becomes a hazardous waste, polluted both by chemicals added to speed the process and by radioactive elements buried deep in the ground.
Since gas sequestration is imperfect and since methane is a light gas, there is always some seepage of methane even when the fracking liquid does not spill out of the wells. In addition to methane, fracking has been linked to increased levels of bromine, which is carcinogenic.
Controversy has surrounded fracking, including the documentary “Gasland,” which showed methane-contaminated water that can be set on fire. The Department of Energy panel is the first step away from a state-by-state framework for regulation that has proven inconsistent. New York has maintained a moratorium over drilling, while Pennsylvania’s Gov. Corbett has rushed into the arms of the gas companies. New Jersey’s Chris Christie has taken a position on the fence, vetoing a ban on the practice while proposing a one-year moratorium.
These states, along with Ohio and West Virginia, sit atop the Marcellus Shale, the largest known reserve of gas targeted by energy companies. In New York and Pennsylvania, the Delaware River watershed, a major source of water for millions of people, stands to be directly impacted by fracking.
In Pennsylvania, news about fracking continues to roll in, almost all of it negative. The Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 21) reported that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission has stopped water withdrawal from 40 locations in the basin, primarily in areas where gas drillers collect water. The sheer volume of water needed has literally been draining the creeks of Pennsylvania dry, and the always thirsty operation has even forced drillers to collect rainwater for fracking purposes. Of course, this liquid can no longer be a part of any healthy ecosystem, meaning that any water used in fracking is withdrawn for the long term.
The gas industry is relentlessly focused on its image. Natural gas is touted as “cleaner burning” and an alternative to oil that is abundant and domestically available. The greenwashing campaign has reached the point where some new buses are being touted for running on natural gas instead of diesel fuel—a mainly economic concern that is painted as an environmental gesture.
Of course, methane still releases carbon dioxide when burned, even if the rate is lower than for oil or coal. And when it does get into the atmosphere (the capture rate of fracking wells is about 92%), one particle of methane has the greenhouse gas effect of one hundred carbon dioxide molecules.
The long-term effects of modern drilling and fracking operations are not well studied. The residue of wastewater underground and the act of fracturing rocks itself may have unforeseen consequences. Geologists have found links between fracking and increased seismic activity.
Other long-term effects, including those on water basins, still lack sufficient study. What research has been done is often obfuscated by flimsy claims from the energy industry, such as claiming that 20-year-old reports of bromine in an area invalidate any claim that bromine poisoning is related to fracking.
Many of the steps in the Department of Energy’s report would be improvements over the status quo, but the truth is that it has no regulatory teeth. The environmental impact of fracking should be grounds to force a moratorium and much stricter regulation, paid for directly by the corporations that are enriched by it, if the practice is allowed. Any drilling that does occur should be subject to steep carbon taxes, to be used to fund a renewable energy infrastructure.
No matter how much it is painted otherwise, natural gas is no way out of the environmental catastrophe the human race is facing. Even if it replaced coal and oil entirely, the developed world would still be pumping unsustainable levels of CO2 into the atmosphere. Yet fracking shows the weakness of attempting to use market “solutions” to combat the ongoing climate crisis. Instead of putting money into actual renewables, the U.S. government would much rather help polish the image of natural gas, which is much more profitable for the energy companies that have latched onto “green” as a buzzword.
Markets don’t reward good ideas, only profitable ones. What is needed is a system based on human need, balanced with environmental sustainability, which is only possible in a planned economy—what we call eco-socialism. The alternative is environmental collapse, whether we get there through coal or methane.
> The article above is by Wayne Deluca, and first appeared in the September 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.