By CARL SACK
Several protests took place in 2012 against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that extracts natural gas from shale bedrock by injecting highly toxic chemicals thousands of feet underground. The fracking boom has killed livestock and contaminated drinking water supplies in several states. The movement to ban fracking continues to gain steam as more and more people stand up and defend their homes against to the behemoth oil and gas industry.
In July, 5000 marched in Washington, D.C., under the banner “Stop the Frack Attack.” In September, “Shale Gas Outrage” brought more than a thousand people into the streets of Philadelphia to protest a fracking industry conference. Marchers demanded an end to shale gas drilling and water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River. Hundreds of billions of gallons of water a year are injected into fracking wells and permanently contaminated with carcinogenic and possibly even radioactive substances.
Despite the protests, politicians of both major capitalist parties unreservedly support fracking, no doubt due to millions of dollars in campaign donations and favors meted out by the gas industry. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett received more than $1.6 million from the industry, while Barack Obama received over $700,000 from oil and gas companies for his presidential reelection campaign (Mitt Romney got $4.8 million, according to the website OpenSecrets.org). It’s no surprise, then, that in Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address, he promised to “take every possible action to safely develop [natural gas],” including continuing taxpayer contributions to the industry through government research grants. (Incidentally, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, robber baron Aubrey McClendon, who owns fracking giant Chesapeake Energy, gave $26 million to buy off the Sierra Club and voted for Obama in 2008).
Contrary to the president’s claim, “safe” fracking is impossible, at least under the capitalist drive for profit at any environmental cost. Although profitable, the industry didn’t take off until after 2005, in large part because the pollution it caused was illegal. But in what’s known as the “Halliburton loophole”—named for the company that invented fracking, whose former CEO was U.S. vice president at the time—the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracking from most provisions of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Superfund (toxic site cleanup) law.
It also allowed companies to claim that the chemicals they use in fracking fluid are “trade secrets” and therefore not subject to disclosure, throwing the public’s right to know what’s in their water supply out the window. In some states, doctors must sign confidentiality agreements—gag orders—before they are told what might be poisoning their patients.
The Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania was the first geologic formation to gain the focus of gas companies using new deep-well directional drilling techniques that made fracking profitable starting in the late 1990s. Consequently, the state has the most wells and the most reported problems. The most widely cited example is the town of Dimrock, where 13 drinking water wells were contaminated with methane and a number of toxic chemicals, and one well exploded. Gas companies drilling in the Marcellus racked up 2072 regulatory violations from 592 wells between 2007 and 2010, most of which resulted in a slap on the wrist, if anything.
Pennsylvania cattle farmer Terry Greenwood spoke out at a forum in March 2011. He says Dominion Gas held a grandfathered lease on his farm, and started drilling without his permission in 2008, contaminating his well water. “We’re still using a water fountain, drinking out of it, and now we’re paying for it because [Dominion] discontinued it. They do what they want to because they’re so big, and who you going to call? No one will listen to you,” Greenwood said. Ten of his calves died and others were deformed from drinking out of his farm pond, which was contaminated by the drilling.
Many residents of areas with fracking have demonstrated that they can light their tap water on fire because of methane contamination, shown dramatically in filmmaker Josh Fox’s excellent documentary “Gasland.” Carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, and 2-butoxyethanol have been found in groundwater around fracking sites.
As with many polluting industries, fracking is more concentrated in poorer communities. Last year, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that stripped local governments’ rights to regulate fracking, but then passed a moratorium that only applies to the wealthiest parts of the state. The first law, Act 13, is currently before the state’s Supreme Court.
Fracking proponents claim that natural gas is better for the climate than other fossil fuels because it burns with lower carbon dioxide emissions. President Obama and even some big environmental groups have touted it as a “transition fuel” leading to renewable energy. But methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas 20 times as powerful at trapping heat as carbon dioxide.
Fracking wells leak 4-8% of the methane they extract, according to a Cornell University study. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that after leveling off for 10 years, the amount of methane in the atmosphere began rising dramatically again in 2007, about the same time fracking took off in the U.S.
One would think that the danger to the climate would cause every precaution to be taken to ensure no waste. But in North Dakota, where the Bakken Shale holds both crude oil and natural gas, many derricks flare off the gas that comes up with the oil because it’s more profitable than capturing it.
People are fighting back. Because of public outrage, 200 communities in 10 states now have local bans or moratoria on fracking. New York State was forced to extend a fracking moratorium enacted in 2010, after concerns were raised that New York City’s drinking water supply could be contaminated. “Fracktivists” are fighting to prevent the moratorium from being lifted in 2013. In Wisconsin, which supplies much of the sand needed as a raw ingredient in fracking, communities are struggling against a boom in sand mining and processing, which pollutes the air with cancer-causing silica dust.
Fracking is murderous to the health of workers, the public, and the earth’s climate, and should be banned now! We don’t need more gas; we need a massive jobs program—controlled by working people—to transform our economy from one that runs on fossil fuels and profit-driven growth to one based on safe, renewable energy and energy conservation.
The transition we seek to halt the climate catastrophe isn’t replacing one dirty fossil fuel with another. It’s replacing an outdated economic system, which is killing the planet, with one based on fulfilling human needs!