By JAMES THOMAS
The Occupy Wall Street movement has helped many in the United States to recognize the influence that corporations have over political life. The predatory practices of the major financial institutions, our society’s deepening inequality, and the irreconcilable differences between the 99 percent and the 1 percent have all been brought to the fore. One of the areas in which capitalism’s contradictions are most glaring is the relationship between a system based on endless profiteering at any cost and the earth on which we all live and rely.
The movement for environmental justice is multifaceted. Struggles against mountain top removal in West Virginia, against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, against the use of nuclear energy, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the United States and abroad have made their way into major news sources. All of these must be considered in relation to the time-sensitive problem of climate change and the absolute need to transition to an economy based on renewable and safe energy. Under capitalism such a transition would be impossible due to the large amounts of money invested in the extraction and selling of finite energy sources.
Few methods of acquiring energy lay bare the capitalist system’s complete disregard for human health and safety more than fracking. This extremely destructive process involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals deep below the earth’s surface to fracture shale rock formations that contain deposits of gas for extraction. Communities, along with the people who work at fracking sites, are at risk as they are exposed to toxic chemicals, extremely loud noises caused by heavy machinery, water, and air contamination, and possible explosions.
Even the mining of sand used in fracking has raised serious health concerns. An enormous increase in the price of sand in recent years has made this an extremely lucrative business. As a result, Southern Minnesota and Wisconsin are experiencing great environmental destruction as chunks of landscape are torn up, air is polluted with silica particles and diesel fume emissions, and water is contaminated. But sand mining is only the initial stage of the process. The part that deals with the actual extraction of gas is just as invasive.
Pennsylvania rests above the Marcellus Shale formation and has been extremely impacted by the process. The enormous amount of water mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped beneath the earth’s surface to fracture the shale comes back to the top as an even more toxic soup that poses serious challenges for storage and treatment.
There’s no such thing as a clean fracking fluid. According to two Stony Brook University scientists quoted in protectingourwaters.wordpress.com: “‘Even a benign hydraulic fracturing fluid is contaminated once it comes into contact with the Marcellus Shale.’ Sodium, chloride, bromide, arsenic, barium and naturally occurring radioactive materials are the kinds of contaminants that occur in fracking well wastewater.”
In states like Ohio this toxic mixture is used to de-ice roads or stored in injection wells deep underground. Truth-out.org reports that Youngstown, Ohio, experienced 12 earthquakes last year due to the migration of subterranean wastewater into an unmapped fault. One of the quakes measured a 4.0 on the Richter scale.
Shale gas is often advertised as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy. A problem with this portrayal is the fact that fracking produces copious amounts of methane, which traps considerably more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. According to an article published by The Scientific American last winter, when the toxic soup from the gas well resurfaces it brings with it 40 to 60 percent more methane than is produced in a conventional gas well. This “fugitive methane” is released directly into the atmosphere.
According to data from two Cornell University professors cited in the article, “within the next 20 years, methane will contribute 44 percent of the greenhouse gas load produced by the U.S. Of that portion, 17 percent will come from natural gas operations.” They also point out that within this 20-year period hundreds of thousands of wells are scheduled to go into operation worldwide. At the moment fracking accounts for 90% of gas exploration in the United States.
Contaminated water and climate change are only portions of the problem. Heavy machinery and infrastructure development with complete disregard for human safety is also part of the picture.
On March 29 the Lathrop Compressor station in Susquehanna County, Pa., caught fire. A typical compressor used in the fracking process emits known carcinogens into the air and causes people living nearby to experience nausea, severe headaches, and dizziness in addition to other symptoms. Compressors are proliferating throughout Pennsylvania, which makes air contamination and potential explosions a serious risk for residents.
In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of issuing approval to the company responsible for the exploding compressor to construct the Central Compressor Station in Susquehanna County. The state has already said that they will not impose regulations on toxins released from the compressor into the air or hold the company responsible for malfunctions due to “poor maintenance or careless operations.”
In New York State, where Gov. Cuomo is considering allowing fracking, a major construction project is in the works. According to The New York Times, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given the go-ahead on a controversial natural-gas pipeline that would run beneath the Hudson River connecting New Jersey to the West Village in Manhattan. This new pipeline, which is supported by Mayor Bloomberg, has a $1.2 billion price tag and is anticipated to transport 800 million cubic feet of gas daily. Some 200 feet underground, it would include about 15 miles of additional pipe through Bayonne and Jersey City and under Staten Island before making its way to Manhattan.
In addition, gas equipment and facilities will be placed in sections of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Clearly, Bloomberg, Cuomo, and the project proposer Spectra Energy care little about the enormous risk associated with placing a potentially explosive gas pipeline beneath areas as densely populated as North Jersey and New York.
Since the construction of the pipeline is designed to transport the gas derived from fracking, there has been a considerable attempt on the part of Bloomberg Philanthropies to greenwash the process. The foundation recently awarded a $6 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund in hopes of securing stronger regulations on the inherently disastrous process. But the only real solution is an all-out ban on fracking.
It is also falsely claimed that fracking will reduce America’s energy dependency. According to a recent article published by the Sierra Club, much of the methane gas that comes from fracking in the U.S. is slated for highly profitable export. The plan is to convert the gas to liquified natural gas and ship it out to a global market.
With North American methane being the cheapest in the world, estimates show that as much as 40% of methane extracted in this country could be exported. This could cause the price of methane to drastically increase industry and utility bills in an already precarious economy. The whole process would involve mile upon mile of dangerous high-pressure pipelines. In Oregon, state and national forests have been sacrificed in the construction of such facilities.
Indeed, fracking has the potential to become a widespread global catastrophe. It is believed that China has the largest shale gas reserves in the world; China’s National Petroleum Corp is in partnership with Shell and is aiming to produce billions of cubic meters of gas by 2015. Poland, the largest reserve in Europe, has already started drilling, though France and Bulgaria have instated a ban on fracking. In England, much like in Ohio, earthquakes have occurred near drill sites.
In all of this working people are the most drastically affected. In Ohio, the government has sold state land and lake water to the energy companies for use in fracking. Everywhere workers are suffering on the job. According to a chilling press release put out by the organization Protecting Our Waters, a 42-year-old worker from Colorado died of pancreatic and liver cancer after years of washing out fracking waste water tanks and being denied protective safety equipment by his employer.
Workers have described the world of gas drilling as a “culture of fear” as they are expected to haul silica sand, toxic waste water, and operate dangerous equipment without proper training or safety equipment. In this endless race for profits, as is generally the norm in capitalist society, human health and wellbeing take the backseat.
The only real solution to the crisis of fracking and climate change is a transition to a society based on human needs, not profits. Nothing short of a socialist society, a society under the democratic control of the working class, will allow us to establish an economy based on free, clean, and reusable energy for all.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, there will be a protest outside the Philadelphia Convention Center as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group of regional representatives of the gas industry and their political allies, hold their annual convention. For more information, visit shalegasoutrage.org.
To celebrate our comrade Cliff Conner’s new book “The Tragedy of American Science,” out now from Haymarket Books, we re-publish an early excerpt published in Socialist Action in April 2018.