On this Earth Day, 2012, I am obligated to write about a subject that is not getting sufficient discussion. Last week, a North Carolina Senate Panel recommended fracking be done in NC beginning in 2014 once the regulations and safeguards have been developed. Fracking, which is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, is an extreme measure to harvest natural gas which lies beneath several states in the US. Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and few other states are permitting it to occur. Unfortunately for their citizens, they get to be the guinea pigs and get to witness the economic boom for some and the perils to many.
Fracking is one of four extreme measures to extract fossil fuels which need to be ceased or severely limited due to their environmental dangers. The other three are
- offshore drilling – we are witnessing fish deformities in the Gulf of Mexico as reported last week due to the derrick collapse and oil spill of two years ago;
- oil shands retrieval – the cost to retrieve is significant and toxins escaping in the environmental are of concern;
- mountain-top removal to get at coal – on top of the damage done to the aesthetics of a region, this vents numerous toxins and supports an energy source that needs to be eliminated.
Fracking gets pushed by the Oil and Gas Industry as it makes a ton on money for them. Plus, the people who sell rights to their land can retire early. In general, when there is so much money to be had, people should question things more, but we often gloss over the details and fine print. When I have seen T. Boone Pickens on “60 Minutes,” he will say well there are some drawbacks we need to investigate, yet it does not stop the industry from plowing ahead. The Environmental Protection Agency is always trying to catch up to this industry and others as the standard defense is the data is not conclusive. As a sidebar, we need the EPA to be larger and more strident, so any politician who advocates doing away with the EPA is doing a disservice to our country and planet.
In essence, fracking takes chemically loaded water that is used to blast away at rock buried beneath the ground. It now can be deployed horizontally, which means it can be performed to a far greater extent after digging the vertical hole. The chemicals are used to lubricate the rock and assist in the hydraulic blasting to release the gas. Dr. Sandra Steingraber refers to it as “slickwater hydrofracking” in her book “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” There are many problems that result from this process that need to be highlighted.
First, the chemically loaded water has to go somewhere after being used. And, anyone who has had a water problem in their house knows, water finds the path of least resistance. The poisoned water leaks into the water table of the surrounding areas, so people who live near the drilling will have a water supply that is not drinkable. “60 Minutes” did a report on how people in Pennsylvania could ignite the water. Bathing or cleaning clothes in this water exposed them as well to the chemical toxins.
Second, the blasting itself releases the various toxins built up inside of the bedrock. Methane, arsenic, mercury to name a few escape into the environment. This air is not only breathed in, but also the particles settle on the trees and ground. I mention this settling, as often times an area may be cleaned up, but following the next big windstorm, will be repolluted when the toxins are blown back into the air. There are numerous physical and mental maladies that can be traced to these toxins and evidence of higher degrees of exposure are beginning to surface due to fracking. These maladies are traceable to other sources of exposure as well.
In Dr. Steingraber’s book, she notes children run the greatest risk of exposure which is the major point of her book – let’s protect our children. Children are closer to the ground, breath in far more than their body weight relative to an adult, tend to mouth breath more than adults taking in even more air and tend to put their hands in their mouth ten times per hour on average. So, toxins can be ingested as well as breathed in. With their brains not fully developed, any toxin that can hinder the process is more problematic for a child than adult. I would also add increased premature births and miscarriages are correlated to areas exposed more to certain toxins.
Third, the infrastructure and process to frack is tremendously debilitating to the surrounding area. Trees are taken down, roads are encumbered by very heavy machinery with their toxic exhaust and the staging areas overwhelm places. The farmer who sells gets his nice income, but he is infringing on his neighbors and his other rights and freedoms to live and make a living. This infrastructure causes a significant amount of environmental and aesthetics problems.
Fourth, if that were not enough, in Oklahoma, there has been a significant increase in the number of earthquakes that have occurred in the past. It was reported Oklahoma was experiencing 300 more earthquakes than normal trends. Although not confirmed as causal, there is a high correlation between the earthquakes and fracking in the area. The Oil and Gas Industry would say this is does not prove anything, yet this is the kind of data that needs to cause a pause in the action as it is investigated further. The industry position is to dig away until proven. It should be noted that many developers in all kinds of industries have a history of focusing first and foremost on their short term profit and less about what is left behind for others. That is someone else’s problem, so to speak.
Yet, let’s set aside all of that for now. If that does not convince you we need not pursue fracking, consider this. Fracking takes a huge amount of water out of the water system. Usually, when water is used for some purpose it can go back into the drinking supply. However, with slickwater fracking, using Dr. Steingraber’s term, the water cannot go back into the water system as it is loaded with poisonous chemicals. This is of vital importance, as water is or will be the new gold on our planet. In the south three years ago, we had a huge drought which heightened our water problems. Atlanta’s water sustainability was exposed. Here in NC, we say rationing and lakes became extremely low. In fact, as of this writing, water shortage is of concern once again. Texas has a significant water shortage where wells have dried up and water is being imported from other locations. In other parts of the world, the problem is far worse and even inhumane.
So, before we charge ahead and say fracking is the new panacea, please make sure these issues are highlighted. The rhetoric around new jobs, new income streams and a new fuel source will usually dominate the discussion, if it is discussed at all. On the day after the NC Senate Panel ruled to move forward, it was reported deep in my paper and none of the TV stations reported on it all, even in their websites. Fracking may be one of the most significant problems coming there way and it was overshadowed by all of the other news of the day.
On this Earth Day, we owe it to our children and ourselves to question things such as fracking and look at unbiased data. Especially when people see the dollar signs they do and can be influenced by lobbyists with promises of panaceas, we need to say let’s look at this further. At a bare minimum, when someone says we need to do away with the EPA, please tell them you are not in favor of that and let them know why. We only have one Earth and we are not treating it very well.