HBO’s Gasland has it right: Take caution before jumping on the ‘fracking’ wagon

Haze surrounding home during fracking near Pavilion, Wyoming. Photo by John Fenton.

“Whoa, that’s not supposed to happen.”

Thus spoke Josh Fox, master of the understatement, after he witnessed a man, whose house neighbors a natural gas well, light his kitchen tap water on fire. And by “fire” I don’t mean a delicate tongue of flame like on a candlestick: it’s an honest-to-goodness fireball that comes blazing out of that tap. And it happens not once but multiple times in different homes across the country in Fox’s recently-released documentary on hydraulic fracturing called Gasland.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” (any other Battlestar Galactica fans sharing a smile?), is a technique used by drilling companies to extract natural gas. A mixture of chemicals and water is blasted into horizontally-drilled wells, creating a multitude of fractures in the shale from which natural gas can then flow to wells on the surface. Basically, it’s a man-made earthquake thousands of feet underground. The process has been lauded by industry proponents as “the answer” to America’s future energy needs, by unlocking a vast store of “clean” natural gas previously thought to be undevelopable. Sounds pretty innocent, right?

Wrong. It takes one to seven million gallons of water to frack each well once, and each well can be fracked up to eighteen times during its lifetime. Assuming that the average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day, that means that each frack job can use as much water as 17,500 families do each day. And that’s not the end of it: all that water is laced with a solution drawn from a menu of 596 chemicals, many of which (such as diesel fuel, formaldehyde, glycol ethers, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide) are known to be harmful to humans. Thirty to seventy percent of the fracking solution remains underground, where it can contaminate aquifers, including aquifers used for drinking water.

In Gasland, citizens from Pennsylvania to Colorado display jars of muddy brown water which began gushing from their kitchen taps after hydro-fracking started nearby. In Wyoming, a farmer fills a trough with water from his well and, holding a blow torch to the surface, burns it into a plastic. Many people whose homes are near gas fields complain about headaches, dizziness, loss of taste and smell, and (in some cases) excruciating pain in hands and feet. Pets like cats and horses have lost fur and weight while wild animals like birds and rabbits are turning up dead next to contaminated streams.

At this point, you’re not alone if you’re suspiciously examining the glass of water you were about to sip. Access to pure, healthy water seems an inviolable a right as clean air or the pursuit of happiness. So what is Congress, the guardian of our civil rights, doing about it? There was much cause to be optimistic when Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced their Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act last year, which would repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act and require companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluids. This one-page bill (small fry compared to the 100-page behemoths that Congress typically deals with) bogged down in the Subcommittee on Environment and Public Works because of spirited opposition which argued that state-level regulations on hydro-fracking are perfectly adequate.

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Courtesy Photobucket.In a floor speech on July 27 Senator Inhofe (R-OK) claimed that “in hydraulic fracturing’s 60 year history there has not been a single documented case of contamination” and insisted, “We need to recognize that in considering additional federal regulation, we are experimenting with disaster.” In spite of these objections, an effort to address growing concerns about the chemical content of fracturing fluids was made by incorporating a disclosure requirement into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) energy and oil spill response bill introduced in late July. Even this watered-down version stimulated loud objections from the oil and gas industry. The bill’s ultimate fate is still uncertain, since Sen. Reid recently pulled his bill from Senate floor consideration prior to the August recess.

Congress is stalled (what else is new?) but hope remains that hydro-fracking laws can be tightened on a state-by-state basis. The New York State Senate recently approved a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a natural gas-rich area which also happens to encompass the aquifer which provides clean, unfiltered drinking water to New York City. In the same vein, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed a bill to protect state forests in the Marcellus Shale from drilling. The kerfuffle over hydro-fracking has also prompted states such as Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Michigan to reconsider their oil and gas regulations in a more environmentally-friendly light.

Natural gas is being touted as a bridge fuel to a clean energy future; a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels and a way out of our energy dilemma. But before we climb aboard that train, isn’t it a good idea to make sure we’re not running over anyone on the way?

Haze surrounding home during fracking near Pavilion, Wyoming. Photo by John Fenton.
Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Courtesy Photobucket.