By James Fortin
Slick salespeople and evil doers know that if you keep uttering the same lie that eventually enough people will believe it. So it is with the statement that the use of natural gas is a bridge to a clean, renewable energy future.
Exxon Mobil, fifty years ago, was the first to obscure and lie about the dangers that fossil fuels pose to the climate. But such criminal “traditions” carries on to this day. Pittsburgh EQT, the largest supplier of U.S. gas, pumping about 4 billion cubic feet a day, says on its website as of this writing: “Clean burning natural gas is an important part of our country’s energy mix, and we are proud to be a major producer of natural gas and even prouder to produce it in an environmentally responsible manner.” Whatever the claim, the record on natural gas says otherwise, overwhelmingly.
Fracking becomes acceptable, even blessed
In a 2010 study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists predicted that the rapidly expanding domestic natural gas market – successful due to the new science of hydraulic fracturing – would produce a source of energy that quickly diminished the use of coal-fired power plants because it was cheaper. That it did. They warned that the cheaper-than-coal fossil fuel natural gas had the potential to push aside investments in developing renewable energy such as solar and wind, as well as carbon capture and storage. That it did as well. It also was the beginning of the notion of a “transition” fossil fuel.
The giddiness over natural gas by some was evident. Ray Orbach, a former director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy opined at the time that the economic advantage of natural gas was “a very healthy competition” and “a blessing” since it would drive out coal, the most polluting source of greenhouse gases.
Come along Barak Obama, several year later, natural gas was anointed as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” Fracking spread widely across the country mostly unopposed with the holy grail of a “bridge” in reality becoming a defensive wall employed by the fossil fuel industry ever since. The emerging dominance of natural gas over coal also had another effect – creation of gas-related infrastructure to include pipelines, power plants, and home heating appliances. That effectively locked natural gas into the energy system for decades. After all, who among us needed to worry about emissions any longer as there now was a plan on getting us to a carbon-free world.
It was the lower cost of natural gas that retired dirty coal from power generation, not lofty stated principles or aspirations of the fossil fuel industry. But with fracking as the method to extract gas from bedrock, came an avalanche of dangerous, anti-climate consequences. And now with renewable solar and wind power producing cheaper electricity than gas, the shoe has been placed on the other foot, and the fracked gas operatives are denying and stalling.
The destructive health impact of fracking
Although the precise number is difficult to pin down, there are estimated to be more than 1.1 million unconventionally drilled (aka fracked) oil and gas wells in the U.S. As the number has grown, so have the health and environmental effects. None are good.
Fracking operators have avoided disclosure of the chemicals used in their extraction process. Numerous studies though have confirmed evidence of cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene contaminating groundwater in the area of the wells, and populations in the vicinity of wells experiencing disproportionate occurrences of respiratory, nervous, and immune system problems. A wide assortment of lesser impacts such as headaches, eye irritation, and dizziness have been found as well.
In one Texas location a study performed between 2012 and 2015 demonstrated that babies born to mothers who lived within 5 miles of natural gas flaring during that time frame were 50 percent more likely to be premature. In other areas excessive nausea, fatigue and cancer have been attributed to exposure to radioactive materials extracted from the fracked bedrock together with the natural gas.
In another location the fossil fuel industry has made Washington County of southwestern Pennsylvania the mother lode of that state’s fracked gas. Living in the county that has 1600 fracked wells and surrounded by a half dozen nearby, the members of the Bower-Bjornson family living there also have experienced what many others in their community have suffered.
In reporting by Environmental Health News during the summer of 2019 one of the family’s children, a 13-year-old boy, was found to have eleven chemicals in his urine known to cause respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments as well as organ damage, reproductive problems, and increased cancer risk. The very same chemicals are common to gasoline, pesticides, industrial solvents, glue, varnishes, industrial waste, and tobacco smoke – a deadly elixir also prevalent in emissions from fracked wells.
The Union of Concerned Scientist published an exhaustive 475-page summary in 2020 of over 1500 scientific studies regarding the risks and harms of fracking. Among its main conclusions the report stated that “the vast body of scientific studies now published on hydraulic fracturing… confirms that the climate and public health risks from fracking are real and the range of environmental harms wide. Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly and without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.”
Our environment is being fracked, too
The attack on public health is part and parcel of the assault on the environment. With the development of fracking technology came the exploitation of shale geological formations where 75 percent of U.S. gas now originates, now found throughout the continental U.S. A poisonous mix of patently secret chemicals and massive amounts of water, under enormous pressure, are blasted into the fissures created thousands of feet below the surface. The deadly concoction – presently with each well consuming over 14.3 million gallons of water on average – is pumped out and stored for treatment and further use. The fracked gas now being produced releases into the atmosphere carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, alone. Side effects (have that read “cost of doing business”) include earthquakes, billions of gallons of water poisoned beyond repair, and despoilment of grasslands and forest.
In the same vein as the travails experienced by the Bower-Bjornson family are the disturbed lives of those in the household of Bryan Latkanich, also from Washington County. Having leased his farm in 2010 to fracking, Latkanich ended up with 2 wells 400 feet from his home. Over the course of 10 years his well became contaminated, the foundation of his home was damaged, drilling wastewater was secretly and illegally dumped on his land, and his 2-year-old son experienced a host of abnormal health symptoms. Of course, Chevron Oil, the well operator, denied all responsibility for his problems. And to be expected, state agencies have been ineffectual in providing any recourse or solutions.
Bryan Latkanich summed it up. “I was a total cheerleader for this industry at the beginning…Now I just want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake I did. This has ruined my health and my kid’s health and destroyed my farm. It has ruined my life.” Everywhere natural gas goes so do poisonous water, polluted air, and contaminated soils.
To state that fracking is an environmental nightmare is grossly inadequate. The Union of Concerned Scientists study concluded: “The rapidly expanding body of evidence compiled here is massive, troubling, and cries out for decisive action. Across a wide range of parameters, the data continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems that cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks. The risks and harms of fracking are inherent to its operation. The only method of mitigating its grave threats to public health and the climate is a complete and comprehensive ban on fracking. Indeed, a fracking phase-out is a requirement of any meaningful plan to prevent catastrophic climate change.”
Unlike Pittsburgh’s EQT quoted above, Exxon Mobil, the second-largest U.S. producer of natural gas with a history of hiding the effects of fossil fuels on climate change, has refrained from offering glowing comments about its fracked gas production. Instead, it simply wants to stall. The CEO of Exxon Mobil, Darren Woods, earlier this month stated his company at most would “try” to set a net-zero carbon emissions goal but not just yet. “We are supportive of that ambition and our goal is to help society to achieve it…It’s an evolving conversation that I find very helpful to think through what needs to happen.” More double talk while the methane gas continues to flare.
Peter Krull, the CEO of investment firm specializing in sustainability, commented: “Woods and Exxon Mobile continue to live in a fairy-tale world of inaction while California burns and Texas freezes.” Spending serious dollars to fight climate change is not in Exxon’s budget. Spending $19 billion in 2021 for fossil fuel exploration is, however.
Opposition to fracking grows but needs to go further
Welcomingly, there is growing opposition to fossil fuel expansion by the public as well as climate activists. While mouthpieces for the fracked gas industry will continue to spread denial about their product’s dangers, ever fewer are believing their lies. In 2020 major fossil fuel pipeline projects to fold in the face of massive opposition included the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines in the Midwest as well as the West Virginia Atlantic Coast gas pipeline. Just this past month, in small-town Belfast, Maine, climate activists mobilized to stop a 40-mile-long expansion of a fracked gas pipeline. Using petitions, mass attendance at city council meetings, and planning for future demonstrations and civil disobedience, the climate groups successfully mobilized public opposition that led Summit Natural Gas to scrap its $90 million project. Lamenting its defeat the gas company offered a bit of truth: “Our project is not alone in its inability to move forward.”
The fossil fuel despoilers are doing only what the capitalist system demands of them – make a profit — notwithstanding their high and mighty comments about how we are all in this together. The negative societal consequences of their businesses are just collateral damage. Big Oil & Gas has known about greenhouse gas emissions and their impact for half a century, just as the tobacco industry knew their products caused lung cancer, just as the Sackler family knew that their pain pills caused opioid addiction, just as the plastics industry knows that plastics kill ocean life. They don’t care; they’re making money.
The American people oppose fracked gas. Only 38% support more hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, whereas 77% of Americans agree that wind, solar and hydrogen development is more important than expanded production of US fossil fuels. Results of a national poll conducted by the Pew Research Center published in Nov. 2019 showed 67% of adults think the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change. Yet, the industry is lightly regulated at the state level and has remained virtually untouched by the federal government, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats. It was, after all, Presidential candidate Joe Biden who vigorously proclaimed and who will forever be remembered as uttering the words, “I never said I opposed fracking.”
Capitalist enterprise with its profit motive has forever privatized the gain and socialized the pain. Such formulas are in the bloodstream of the ruling 1%. They cannot put themselves out of business which exactly is the antidote needed to avoid the pending climate catastrophe and a host of other calamities. That is where socialism comes in and that is why working people need to do it for them.