By CHRISTINE FRANK
Three hundred grassroots activists met in Dallas the first weekend in March to share information, network, and strategize over how to end the hydro-fracturing of shale gas in their rural and suburban communities. The Marcellus, Utica, Eagleford, and Barnett shales were well represented, the latter two being in Texas. It was in the Barnett Shale, where frack fever first caught on with horizontal drilling and fracking technologies having been perfected there. Consequently, there were many local people at the summit relating their horror stories.
The event was sponsored by Earthworks, an organization that focuses on preventing the environmental and health damage caused by the extraction industries. Activists were pumped up by the 50,000 who had demonstrated in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 17, and found the two days of keynote addresses and workshop sessions very useful.
As the reserves of conventional hydrocarbons are rapidly declining, reliance upon extreme forms of energy—shale gas and oil, tar sands bitumen, deepwater petroleum, and nuclear power—are more and more becoming the norm, placing ever greater stresses upon ecosystems and human health. As “Gasland” filmmaker Josh Fox stated, the oil and gas industry has now leased the mineral rights under an equivalent land mass comparable in size to the states of California and Florida combined.
Gas leaseholder Chesapeake Energy is currently the largest landowner in the U.S. Developers have invaded American communities much like a foreign power would the colonial world in a rapacious grab for resources. As author Michael T. Klare has aptly pointed out, North America is being transformed into an Energy Third World.
Communities under siege
Numerous “fracktivists” testified at the summit that life in a frack zone is a living hell, as farms, ranches, residential neighborhoods, parks, and public lands are being bored from underneath by horizontal drilling and surrounded by drilling pads, compressor stations, processing plants, and pipelines on the surface. Nothing is sacred with gas infrastructure installed near schools, day-care centers, and hospitals and located well within “setback” limits.
In fact, its concentration in urban areas is mind boggling. In Texas especially, where the oil and gas industry dominates politics, city councils have conveniently passed industry-friendly zoning ordinances despite massive opposition. They are now proposing to allow horizontal drilling under city parks in Dallas, against which activists are mobilizing at council meetings.
A frack attack in an area results in numerous toxic exposures that undermine the health of all life. People are exposed to methane that has migrated into their water wells, enabling them to ignite their taps or wellheads and making the water undrinkable. Methane collects in basements, presenting the very real risk of explosion.
The accidental and routine venting or blowdowns of methane (CH4) into the atmosphere cause a plethora of health problems. Its flaring is also widespread. Gas flares are so numerous in the Bakken Oil Shale in western North Dakota that they can be seen by satellite shining at night more brightly than the nearest urban center, which is the Twin Cities.
The inefficient flaring of CH4 at 95% is another source of air pollution. Its incomplete combustion gives off Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) as well as nitrous oxides (NOxs). In addition, NOxs are automatically released from compressor stations, either deliberately or because of valve failure with up to 32,500 tons allowed per year. They contribute to the formation of deadly smog in combination with ground-level ozone that together are photochemically altered by sunlight.
Gas extraction causes increased tropospheric ozone levels that lead to the destruction of the alveoli of the lungs, which never recover. Ozone also kills crops and wild vegetation. Gas treatment plants release hydrogen sulfide that causes acid deposition as rainwater turns the gas into sulfuric acid.
Another hazard is the chemical cocktail of radioactive, flowback water that’s stored in leaky surface pits or trucked and spilled along the way to deep injection wells, around which earthquakes are common. Highly toxic spent water has even been released onto city streets and roads and into ditches.
Water usage is enormous. One wellhead can suck up to five million gallons of freshwater. During the epic Texas drought, the frackers were allowed to use all the water they wanted while farmers and ranchers were being ruined and municipalities imposed rationing. Once this essential resource is polluted, it is extremely difficult to recover and purify it.
Land subsidence has also occurred, causing exposures to VOCs and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). A sink hole in a salt dome cavern in Bayou Corne, La., caused the mandatory evacuation of a community of 350 because of migrated crude bubbling out. Similar subsidence occurred under a Dallas suburban schoolyard. Animals—livestock, pets and wildlife—are getting sick and dying. Poultry and songbirds are showing signs of endocrine disruption. It is very likely that our children are also.
Another serious health hazard is exposure to low frequency noise (LFN) at 500 cycles per second, which is well below human hearing. This comes mostly from the motors on compressor stations, and it travels five to eight miles in all directions. LFN exposure causes Vibro Acoustic Disease (VAD), the main symptom of which is constriction of the blood vessels that affects the heart and nervous system with an alarming array of symptoms. It is considered a whole-body pathology, and it affects 70% of the people in Texas who are exposed to LFN because there are no standards that require the industry to stop it at the source.
Because governments at all levels are in the back pocket of the Energy Giants, the industry is allowed to get away with murder. As a result, there is no regulation of the fracking process, not only thanks to the Halliburton Loophole, which allows wholesale violations of the Clean Water & Air Acts, but also because of a major failure on the part of the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and similar state agencies throughout the country.
Because of this default, corporations can continue to deny they are polluting and conveniently blame people’s health problems on “prior existing conditions.” This was made clear by a panel of keynote speakers. To back up their claims, victims of shale gas pollution have to jump through a lot of hoops to get beyond “anecdotes” when there are releases of toxic gases by systematically logging odor events and related health symptoms. Then it is up to them to report the releases to local agencies in a timely manner.
When monitoring is either nonexistent or inadequate, people have taken to conducting their own air and water sampling. Unfortunately, many can’t afford to, so a few independent, low-cost testing entities have sprung up out of the grassroots movement. In collaboration with Earthworks, they recently conducted an epidemiological study in Pennsylvania , collecting data on 108 health symptoms and correlating them with 34 air and water tests for various hazardous substances released from the fracking process. They found a direct relationship between levels of exposure, intensity of symptoms, and the distance people are living from shale gas infrastructure.
These efforts on the part of the movement have become necessary to get the truth out, especially in places like Pennsylvania, where the state government acts like a subsidiary of the oil and gas industry, and investigations into fracking impacts have been shut down and reports shelved to cover up the damage done.
The most flagrant example is when the EPA tested for seven contaminants and ruled that the water in the town of Dimock, Pa., was safe! The residents there now drink bottled water graciously supplied by the gas drilling company, which still denies it’s polluting the environment. For more information on fracking impacts, view the report, “Gas Patch R oulette”, at: http://health.earthworksaction.org .
Democratic rights suppressed
When confronted with the daily assault of living in a fossil-fuel extraction zone, people are faced with two choices—move and give up everything or stand and fight. Many have courageously chosen to stand and fight, as was evident at the conference. On the other hand, a family that has lived in an area for some four or five generations may decide to pack up and leave because there’s a wellhead 250 feet from their bedroom window, and they can’t stand it anymore. In such instances, homeowners are frequently forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the gas company to whom they’ve sold their property.
Royal Dutch Shell is notorious for imposing such gag orders to silence people. It only goes to show that they are afraid of the truth.
Many small municipalities have passed zoning ordinances, forbidding fracking within town limits. This form of rebellion is not permitted anymore so some states are passing legislation to block the right of towns and cities to defend themselves from a frack attack.
They can also ignore the thousands of comments submitted on Environmental Impact Statements. New York residents submitted 204,000 comments in 30 days, which was more than those who voted for Governor Cuomo in his home borough of Queens, yet he is still considering turning certain counties into sacrifice zones. Other ways democratic rights are being suppressed is by denying the opportunity to comment at public hearings where the opponents of fracking can register their protests.
If victims publicly speak out, they are threatened with legal action by the frackers. The water well of Steve Lipsky was and still is contaminated with lethal levels of methane and benzene. The Weatherford, Tex., homeowner dared complain and posted a video on YouTube showing a two-foot flame coming out of his wellhead when he applied a lighter. Isotopic analysis proved that the CH4 was coming from the nearby drilling operation of Range Resources.
Feeling some pressure to act, the EPA filed an endangerment order against the company, but then dropped the action after cutting a deal in exchange for a token amount of monitoring. Range Resources has sued Lipsky for defamation to the tune of $4 million. On behalf of the driller, a Parker County judge ruled that the video was “deceptive,” but the corrupt judge, Trey Loftin, has since recused himself from the case because he bragged openly during an unsuccessful re-election bid that he’d stuck it to the plaintiff.
Lipsky has had to shut down his well and transport water to his home. To add insult to injury, he’s been hit with a gag order, yet he spoke at the summit. The Texas Railroad Commission, the body that oversees fossil fuel extraction in the state, of course, has backed up the gas driller, denying any contamination. Sadly, on every front, ordinary people are losing the battle against the Energy Giants, and as they say, the first casualty of war is always the truth.
Two farmer activists who spoke from northeastern Iowa termed silica (SiO2) frack-sand mining the bastard child of the hydrofracturing industry. The mineral most sought after is quartz, which makes up common beach sands and has many uses—in concrete, abrasives, glass, and ceramics. Its hardness is second only to that of diamond, and the near-perfect roundness of the grains, combined with its durability, make it an ideal “proppant” to hold open the fissures blasted in the shale formations since it is able to withstand pressures of 10,000 psi.
The fine quartz allows the gas to flow out freely, and is essential to the chemical-water-sand mixture that’s injected into the horizontal well after the shale is fractured with explosives. That is why there has been a boom in the extraction of silica frack sand in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, and elsewhere.
Cheap and plentiful, the mineral is either quarried, strip mined, or excavated out of bluffs from underneath. With strip mining, depending upon how the sandstone deposits were laid down in the geologic past, there can be more than 20 feet of overburden that has to be removed, along with soil and vegetation. That means the habitat and its wildlife are gone forever.
Sand extraction leads to sediment loading in streams that kills aquatic life. Milling also uses a lot of freshwater that can draw down ground and surface water, exacerbating droughts. Frack-sand mining, milling, storage, and transport lead to high levels of silica dust in the air. The dust is similar to microscopic shards of glass, and its inhalation causes silicosis of the lungs, an eventually fatal disease. The alveoli are literally shredded, making it impossible to get enough oxygen. An afflicted person eventually suffocates to death.
Workers in the industry are not provided with any protective gear or ventilation equipment, and are the most vulnerable sector of the population in addition to nearby residents. Airborne silica dust is a known carcinogen, yet only four states regulate it to any degree. With fugitive dust blowing off of great thumping heaps of sand strewn across the landscape, it is a serious hazard.
The frack sand is hauled in heavy uncovered diesel trucks pounding local pavements 24/7. Eventually, it is shipped to gas fracking zones by train in open boxcars. In some communities, the train traffic is so heavy, the vibrations crack windows. The noise level is that of any heavy industrial zone, disturbing the peace and quiet of small towns and rural areas. Once your life is overtaken in that way, you never get it back.
To stay the hand of the mine operators, many counties have passed moratoria on frack-sand extraction. However, they are only temporary until the environmental impacts can be determined. Eventually, the dollar signs start rolling in the eyes of local officials and they succumb to the false promise of jobs and prosperity no matter what the real costs are to ecosystems. Eager to have sand gouged out from under the beautiful bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, the mayor of Red Wing, Minn., was finally forced to resign because it was revealed that he is a lobbyist for the industry at the state legislature.
More irreparable damage to the climate
Given the accelerating pace of climate change that is evident in melting ice masses, rising sea levels, and extreme weather, it is sheer suicide to be extracting ever more fossil fuels. We are on the verge of runaway global warming because greenhouse gas emissions are rising at the rate of two parts per million per year despite a worldwide economic recession. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are at 393 ppm, well over the level considered safe.
The biggest myth of all is that natural gas is a “clean” bridge or transitional fuel and a safe substitute for coal—when there’s nothing clean about it. For years, established environmental groups such as the Sierra Club perpetuated that fairy tale while disgracefully accepting millions of dollars from natural gas developers. Thirty-eight percent of coal and oil electrical generation has been replaced by natural gas. However, when burned for electricity, it still gives off 50% of the carbon emissions of coal.
When released straight into the atmosphere, methane is a greenhouse gas whose potency is 33 times greater than that of carbon dioxide (CO2) over 100 years and 105 times greater over 20 years. This is because CH4 oxidizes into CO2 over time. Because of melting methane hydrates in the Arctic continental shelf and permafrost, factory farming, rice cultivation, and shale oil and gas fracking, methane emissions are skyrocketing, and since 2010, have risen sharply, largely due to out-of-control development.
The accidental leaking and purposeful venting of methane is the same as burning all of the recovered CH4 twice, and as we see from its potency level, small amounts have a large climate forcing. This is the dirty truth behind so-called clean natural gas.
Bubblenomics of drill, baby, drill
The shale gas boom is proving to have only short-lived economic benefits, accompanied by long-term environmental and health problems. According to financial analyst and fractivist Deborah Rogers, it comprises only 1/20th of one percent of the U.S. labor market despite the promise of 600,000 temporary jobs over 30 to 50 years. (In their frackonomic projections, advocates actually include in their employment statistics prostitutes and strippers working in the man camps, the sexual exploitation of women apparently being a growth industry.)
Much of the investment is only on paper, with one-quarter of the reserve growth coming through mergers and acquisitions and massive share repurchases by the majors, giving the illusion of profitability. In other words, the industry is thriving on fake growth, much like the financial markets. The trouble with gas plays is that they play out quickly and soon decline to stripper-well status. Usually by year six, they’re done for.
The energy return on energy invested is also ridiculously low. Conventional crude oil at the peak of production in the U.S. once reaped 100 barrels of oil for every one expended. Today, that has declined to a ratio of 11:1. For extreme energy such as tar sands, it’s 3:1, and shales 5:1, meaning an enormous carbon-intensive footprint for both.
In order to be at all profitable, shale gas operators must seek customers who will pay the most, and those are the foreign markets in Asia. As soon as the liquefied natural gas (LNG) ports are in place, they will be able to charge $18 per million British Thermal Units (mmBTU) as compared with $3.80/mmBTU, the domestic price. They are now committed to fulfilling these long-term contracts to fuel Asian factories from a rapidly depleting commodity.
The economic law is drill or default. With hundreds of thousands of wells in 34 states and new leases being sold in Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere, this does not bode well for the environment. Once the toxic genie is let out of the bottle, the pollution will be migrating through the water table, contaminating the surface, and plaguing us for generations to come.
How to stop the frack attack
As expressed in one workshop, some activists believe that the situation can be rectified by getting Big Gas and Oil’s dirty money out of the elections, since they heavily bankroll the candidates of both capitalist parties. However, because the ruling class controls every aspect of the government, reforming campaign finance would make little difference.
They can always avoid public disclosure by slipping the money into greasy palms under the table. Politicians who don’t play along with their plans to perpetuate the fossil-fuel-based economy until every last barrel of oil, tank of gas, and boxcar of coal is burned don’t last long.
Plus, President Obama has made it clear that he is for fracking and said in his State of the Union Address that all energy options are on the table. That includes filthy tar sands dilbit imported from Alberta, Canada. This pronouncement came along side dubious promises to deal with the climate crisis.
Admittedly, for every dollar spent on Congress, Big Oil & Gas gets a shocking 5800% return on its investment if one divides the $347 million in campaign contributions by the $20 billion in subsidies. The latter come in direct form in tax breaks and loopholes in environmental regulations, and indirect form through the military protection of oil shipping lanes and the out-and-out robbery of other nation’s energy resources through imperialist wars.
In the long run, it is more useful for the movement to forge powerful alliances among grassroots groups, workers, students, and oppressed nationalities and get out into the streets. It is hoped from the summit and the Feb. 17 demonstration that this process is in its formative stages.
This will enable masses of people to unite and demand an end to all fossil-fuel subsidies, the divestment of college and union pension hydrocarbon portfolios, and the taxation to the max of big polluters and destroyers of the climate, using the funds for clean-up. This can be done while simultaneously waging national and local struggles against extractive operations, including TransCanada’s Keystone XL2 pipeline.
The effort to draw down carbon, cool down the planet, and preserve and restore our ecosystems must be waged on many fronts. Ultimately, the only realistic solution is to make an ecosocialist revolution that puts planetary and human needs before profits.
The first act of the revolution must be to nationalize the Energy Giants and other productive forces by putting them under democratic workers’ control so they can be retooled and converted to clean, renewable sources of power and green manufacturing, while leaving all hydrocarbons in the ground where Mother Nature put them.