‘Natural gas’ fracking halted in Delaware River watershed

On Nov. 18, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) suddenly delayed a planned Nov. 21 vote on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Delaware River watershed. The commission includes representatives from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The regulation package before the DRBC would allow over 300 new wells in the basin, which affects drinking water for over 15 million people between the four states. In the lead-up to the scheduled vote there was a massive public outpouring of concern over water quality, and when it became clear that Delaware would oppose drilling, it was canceled altogether.


However, a protest originally planned for the Trenton meeting, initiated largely by forces in Philadelphia and New York, was not cancelled. It drew close to 800 activists, mostly upbeat and viewing the meeting’s cancellation as a victory, while recognizing that the movement must continue to build mass action. The protest, drawing inspiration from Occupy movements around the country, was built by a broad array of environmental organizations.


Fracking is a process of extracting natural gas—methane—from shale rock miles below ground. Wells are drilled, and a high-pressure mixture of water and propellant chemicals are used to break through shale rock and force the gas out and upward. The Marcellus Shale beneath New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia contains an estimated 262 trillion cubic feet of methane. Fracking in Pennsylvania outside of the Delaware watershed is already in progress and linked to contamination of water supplies in rural counties.

The primary pollutant of fracking is the methane gas itself. The recovery rate stands around 92%, and while much of the remainder is flared off, substantial amounts can pollute water supplies or escape into the atmosphere—where they act as a greenhouse gas. Other materials enter the water supply when drilling penetrates aquifers or the porous cement casing on wells leaks. Bromine has been the most common material, but at the depths fracking goes to, numerous toxic and radioactive chemicals can be dredged up by a drilling bore. The toxic stew produced by fracking, euphemistically called water, cannot be safely disposed of in residential water plants and must be sequestered.

While the DRBC has put off its vote pending a safety study, the possibility of fracking in the Delaware watershed still exists. Pennsylvania, led by governor “Toxic Tom” Corbett, wants to allow drilling in the Delaware watershed, regardless of the millions who rely on it for clean water. The threat is still real, since Corbett and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie favor drilling. With the Army Corps of Engineers as the swing vote, it is possible that the DRBC will out vote the governors of New York and Delaware and allow drilling in the watershed.

The long-term impact of fracking remains unknown. New evidence has suggested that fracking deep beneath the earth can increase the incidence of earthquakes, even hundreds of miles away from the drilling site. In turn, the increased earthquakes undermine the already unreliable methods used by gas companies to keep toxic effects of fracking out of the water supply.

Recent reports have revealed that gas-drilling corporations have taken a particular interest in military veterans with counter-insurgency experience. They have worked on applying “psy-ops”—psychological warfare—against the communities affected by drilling. The very same methods that are used to “manage” the local population in oil-rich countries of the Middle East are being used in the United States to enforce the will of gas-drilling corporations. One presenter at an industry conference even directly called the resistance to fracking an “insurgency.”

As awareness has grown of the impact of fracking methods, local resistance has sprung up. The documentary film “Gasland” proved a provocative call to action, showing rural towns devastated by the impact of fracking runoff and water contaminated by methane so badly that it was flammable. The character of this opposition is slowly turning from lobbying to mass action, rallying communities to oppose pollution of their clean water supplies. The fact that the DRBC could not even meet demonstrates clearly that this is beginning to have a real impact.

In a very literal sense, gas-drilling companies are at war with the population of the communities where they are trying to drill. No matter how much their practices are painted as creating jobs or bringing new income into their regions, fracking is a practice that compromises the long-term health and safety of communities for the gain of private corporations. Counter-insurgency methods are a tacit admission of this war, and it is more surprising that people have only begun to fight back.

A section of the ruling class in America has embraced natural gas as a panacea for a whole variety of problems. It is called “cleaner burning,” technically true but deeply misleading. While burning methane releases less carbon dioxide than coal or oil, one particle escaping into the atmosphere has the greenhouse gas effect of a hundred carbon molecules. When this is taken into account, gas is actually dirtier than coal. It is supposed to improve the economies of the regions where it is drilled but it has shown no real benefits, while houses with methane-contaminated water lose their value rapidly. Buses are refitted to run on methane as if it were fundamentally different from oil.

In reality, natural gas is simply another fossil fuel, and relying on it can only deepen the acute ecological crisis that humanity faces. Climate change is an accelerating problem and is driving a series of related problems, from mass species extinction to severe weather and intense droughts. Methane can only be seen as a pollutant that furthers this. Far from a solution, it is another element of the problem; the only solution is a rapid and complete transition to renewable energy.

Just as the drilling corporations are at war with the communities where they accumulate their wealth, so the entire capitalist system is at war with the natural environment. Fracking is one of many battles in this war, a desperate attempt to wrench more profits out of the earth’s crust. The fightback against fracking, likewise, is an important battle against the degradation of nature. It is critically important that this grows into truly mass action, and broaden from a particular fight against fracking to a more general movement for environmental and climate justice. 

> The article above was written by Wayne Deluca, and first appeared in the December 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.