Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Hydraulic fracturing stands on shaky ground

By Michael O'Connor

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Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the latest method of drilling for natural gas, is also the latest crisis in a long history of American environmental and human devastation caused by a desperate scrambling for fossil fuels. Reading all the disturbing and surreal reports on the effects of hydraulic fracturing is like watching an updated version of “There Will Be Blood.” Surrounding these new natural gas wells are stories of the unsustainable profits to be had from drilling companies and deep personal costs to workers and surrounding communities. Perhaps it’s easier for me to relate hydraulic fracturing to fiction only because of its haunting reality, a reality that makes it possible and necessary for us to take a stand against it.

Hydraulic fracturing is, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a “well stimulation process” for retrieving natural gas from the layers of shale situated over a mile underground across the United States. A fracking well is opened by injecting millions of gallons of fresh water, sand and chemicals (including toxins, neurotoxins, and known carcinogens) into wells dug thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. This pressurized sludge breaks apart the dense rocks and releases natural gas while the chemical cocktail prevents the fissures from closing. Industry representatives defend this isolated process as safe. However, the real problems arise from exhausting fresh water lakes and streams from the use of hundreds of tanker trucks to transport water and waste and from the vast contamination of ground water by gasses and chemical wastes, which escape through the wells’ multitudes of fissures.

Across the Atlantic, Cuadrilla Resources has admitted that their fracking operations in England are the most likely cause of recent earthquakes. Cuadrilla claimed that the combination of geological conditions and drilling circumstances signify the unlikelihood for this to occur again but that their operations are on hold barring further research. The U.S. should be taking the same precautions. We aren’t.

Hydraulic fracturing is no fringe method for gas extraction: it is currently used in nine out of ten natural gas wells in the United States and the EPA estimates that hydraulic fracturing will produce 20 percent of the total U.S. gas supply by 2020. An operation of this scale, with experimental methods and untested materials, should warrant enormous oversight. In reality, the industry’s precipitate growth has been catalyzed by an absence of public accountability and government regulation.

The lack of industry regulations is largely a result of the Energy Policy Act passed by Congress in 2005, which excludes all hydraulic fracturing fluids (except diesel fuel, which was banned from use by the EPA) from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Because of this decision, the particular chemical compounds used in fracking have not been documented and its connection to toxic drinking water has remained unexamined. Just last week, the EPA finally announced a new probe into the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water but initial research results are not expected until end of 2012 and the final report may not be released until 2014.

Though I had heard of hydraulic fracturing from NPR news reports, I was ignorant to the scale and degree of its dangers before seeing Gasland, a documentary by Josh Fox. The film follows Fox, who was given an offer to lease his land in rural Pennsylvania to shale gas drilling. In response, Fox turned down the offer and picked up a camera to study the effects of fracking on communities nationwide. In one of Gasland’s many shocking sequences, a Colorado homeowner sets his own tap water on fire. He explains that since fracking wells began drilling on his land, natural gas and chemicals have entered his tap water. In a sense, the homeowner is lucky he noticed this. Methane, the principle component of natural gas, is odorless and colorless but it is a deadly asphyxiant and becomes explosive when it mixes with air.

The unstudied use of hydraulic fracturing has been justified by America’s need for alternatives to imported oil and by industry advocates who oppose federal oversight in favor of state-by-state regulations. The difficulty in leaving regulation to underfunded state governments is that they then feel pressure to compete for the economic boom brought by immensely profitable fracking operations. Yet this economic growth is of the most dangerous and unsustainable kind. Areas with shale gas stores are experiencing a panicked land grab and homeowners are being bought out without knowledge of their decision’s ultimate price. Additionally, the Associated Press has claimed that the abrupt growth of mining town economies and the unstable lives of the industry’s laborers have caused a drastic spike in crime in areas with hydraulic fracturing wells. The profits from fracking are private and for the most part benefit only the nine significant drilling corporations involved, while the deepest costs are both social and environmental.

Not everyone is waiting for the EPA’s updated report on the dangers of fracking. The Delaware River Basin Commission, a federal/interstate government agency responsible for managing the water resources within the Delaware River Basin, is holding a vote on proposed regulations of hydraulic fracturing on Nov. 21. This decision is momentous given the amount of natural gases stored in the Marcellus Shale upon which the Delaware River Basin rests. On the UMass Amherst campus, the group Students for Safe Energy is developing campaigns to raise awareness of hydraulic fracturing on campus and in the greater community.

The decisions on if and how hydraulic fracturing should be practiced deserve careful consideration. Instead, fracking operations have multiplied in haste and secrecy. Many Americans are struggling economically, but hydraulic fracturing is not a viable source of growth; it is an unsustainable method of social and environmental exploitation.

Michael O’Connor is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]


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