By CARL SACK
Despite the imminent perils of global warming and global ecosystem collapse, capitalism has accelerated the assault on Earth’s environment. Faced with the need to grow or die, the global capitalist economy requires ever more non-renewable natural resources and fossil fuels, whatever the environmental cost. Serving their corporate overlords, government regulators pay lip service to environmental protection while they rubber-stamp pollution. It is only when affected communities build determined, militant resistance movements that extraction projects can be halted.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a terrifying example of how fossil fuel company profits take precedence over people’s health. The process of fracking involves drilling a well up to thousands of feet deep into layers of shale bedrock, then drilling sideways for several hundred more feet. Explosives are then used to fracture the bedrock, exposing the oil or gas within. A simple graphical explanation can be found at http://www.dangersoffracking.com.
To get the gas out, a toxic slurry of water, deadly chemicals, and sand are pumped into the well under high pressure. Only the fracking companies know fully what chemicals are being used, as state and federal laws allow that information to be labeled “trade secrets” and not disclosed to the public. Some of the chemicals found in fracking waste include mercury, uranium, formaldehyde, and hydrochloric acid. Only 30-50% of fracking fluid used is recovered from the ground; the rest leaks into deep aquifers and the water table. It is not biodegradable and the water in it can never again be cleaned to drinkable quality.
Instead of receiving treatment, contaminated wastewater from gas wells in Pennsylvania is injected into deep wells in northeast Ohio, causing earthquakes. The city of Youngstown, which had never experienced a recorded earthquake before 2011, recorded 109 earthquakes that year, with the strongest measuring 3.9 on the Richter scale. This is to say nothing of the unknown future problems that may be caused by the current “out of sight, out of mind” approach to fracking waste.
Even where there is no fracking, its consequences are reshaping the landscape. Wisconsin has seen an explosion of new sand mines to provide the exceptionally hard sand needed for fracking. In sleepy rural farming communities, frac sand mining is wreaking havoc, with 24-hour noise, dust, and truck traffic. Ultra-fine silica dust drifting from the mine sites may cause silicosis and lung cancer in workers and surrounding residents, but the state has refused to regulate the dust emissions because it claims there haven’t been adequate studies on the risks.
The technology for fracking was invented in the 1950s, but has only been in widespread use since 2005. In that year, Congress passed an energy bill with the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempted fracking from most provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and the Superfund law. If these environmental regulations were enforced for fracking, it would be illegal!
There are very real consequences of this for the people who live near fracking sites. Drinking-water wells near fracking sites have an average of 17 times the methane concentration of normal wells. Sometimes there is so much methane in well water that residents can light their taps on fire. To capitalists, though, poisoning the common water supply is more of a benefit than a problem, since people with contaminated tap water must purchase bottled water at thousands of times the price of a well over its lifetime, lining the pockets of water privateers.
Methane also leaks into the air, at an average rate of around 34 grams per second at each gas well, according to a recent Pennsylvania study—which is up to 1000 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates. Other studies have shown similar results. Methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
When inhaled, symptoms include dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Volatile organic compounds, which also contaminate air around fracking sites, cause damage to liver, kidney, and the nervous system as well as cancer.
It’s not just people who are impacted. Livestock around dozens of fracking sites have been sickened or killed by air pollution and drinking from water sources contaminated with fracking waste. Heavy metals and radioactivity released by fracking can bioaccumulate in livestock and be passed on through the food chain to humans.
The industry itself is well aware of its image problem and runs a constant stream of pro-fracking propaganda over airwaves. One company, Talisman Energy, donated coloring books to elementary schools that featured a friendly gas-drilling cartoon dinosaur.
Despite the deadly health and climate consequences of fracking, it is promoted by the Obama administration as part of its “all of the above” energy policy. The president’s website brags that “domestic production of natural gas has increased every year since President Obama took office, and is now at an all-time high.”
Promoting fracking is also part of U.S. foreign policy. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released a detailed assessment of “technically recoverable” shale gas reserves around the world. Vice President Joe Biden promoted fracking in Ukraine as part of his diplomatic visit there in April, working out a partnership with the European Reconstruction and Development Bank to spread the technology there.
The government’s enthusiasm for fracking is fed by gas industry campaign contributions to politicians of both major parties. The industry sent federal candidates over $70 million during the 2012 campaign, including over $750,000 to the Obama campaign. These political investments have garnered a massive payoff, as federal fossil fuel subsidies have skyrocketed 45% since Obama took office in 2009—to $21.6 billion in 2013—largely due to the increase in fracking, according to a report by the group Oil Change International. While Obama mouths support for curbing fossil fuel emissions, U.S. taxpayers are paying $5 billion a year to increase oil and gas exploration and development.
Fortunately, the movement against fracking, and fossil fuels in general, is growing and has already won some small but important victories. The strongest anti-fracking movement is in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has so far had to forego opening the state up to frackers. The moratorium there has lasted six years, in no small part due to hundreds of rallies and street protests around the state, including pickets that follow the Democratic governor at his ritzy campaign fundraisers. The New York Supreme Court ruled in July that town governments can ban fracking in their zoning ordinances, and towns in other states have followed suit.
As ecosocialists, we believe that poisoning our water supply, food supply, and climate to increase the profits of fossil fuel companies is insane. Giving away the taxes paid by working people to frackers so they can expand fracking around the world heaps insult upon injury.
Fracking should be banned. We need a 100% renewable energy system now! A transition to 100% clean renewables—distributed and appropriately scaled wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and hydrological energy sources—would produce millions of much-needed jobs while addressing the deepening climate crisis.
In the long run, though, a sustainable economy with full employment and environmental protection is not possible under the capitalist system. Under capitalism, a reduction in energy use entails a recession or depression accompanied by layoffs and poverty for millions. We need a revolution to rebuild society along socialist lines so that we can democratically plan our energy systems without the need for corporate profit driving us all to ruin.
Photo: October 2013 protest against fracking near Elsipogtog native reserve, New Brunswick, Canada. Getty Images.