Try not to wreck the place on your way out

by Jeff Strabone

It used to be the case that the earth took little notice of the rise and fall of empires and republics. Fields were burned, livestock slaughtered, wells polluted, but sooner or later life returned. That is not necessarily the case anymore, as recent eco-catastrophes in the Gulf of Mexico and Japan remind us. But those were accidents, right? Roll the dice on enough high-risk energy projects around the world and eventually something will go wrong. We can at least say that no one who planned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant counted on polluting the Gulf or irradiating northern Japan. I cannot say the same for the energy-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' for short.

Fracking offers us the one-two punch of both ecological and republican destruction at the same time. With its left, it poisons drinking water and appears to cause earthquakes. And with its right, it lands a knockout blow against government regulation, the disinterested rule of law, and that old chestnut from the U.S. Constitution, promoting the general welfare. In the case of fracking, both government and industry know the earth-shattering toxicity of its effects, yet both continue to act as partners in spreading the practice across the country. It is one thing to say that the republic is standing on shaky ground. It is quite another to mean it literally.

Fracking, like tar sands and deep-sea drilling, is one of those energy-extraction methods that sound like they belong in a dystopian sci-fi film about the desperate measures resorted to when traditional energy sources dry up. Briefly, fracking is the fracturing of shale formations thousands of feet underground in order to release natural gas buried deep below. Huge amounts of water, sand or other particulates, and chemicals—it's not clear which chemicals—are sent underground at very high pressure in order to release natural gas.

But that's not all they release. As the New York Times reported on February 27, 2011:

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

(See the Times's chilling animation explaining the fracking process.)

So far, reports about radioactive waste and earthquakes have blamed not the actual drilling per se but, rather, the disposal of the wastewater. One well, as reported above, can produce a million gallons of wastewater. How many such wells are there in the U.S.? According to the same Times article:

There were more than 493,000 active natural-gas wells in the United States in 2009, almost double the number in 1990. Around 90 percent have used hydrofracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry.

Two recent reports on water stand out. The Times's report of February 27, which focused on Pennsylvania, was the kind of long-term investigation that too few newspapers can mount these days: they reviewed more than 30,000 pages of documents, some of them confidential, over nine months. The Times looked chiefly at the wastewater: that it is treated by sewage plants—which are not equipped to remove radioactivity—and discharged into 'the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to more than 800,000 people in the western part of the state, including Pittsburgh, and to the Susquehanna River, which feeds into Chesapeake Bay and provides drinking water to more than six million people, including some in Harrisburg and Baltimore'.

The other notable recent report, on methane in drinking water, was published in May 2011 in PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Among the report's findings,

In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shalegas extraction. […] Methane concentrations were detected generally in 51 of 60 drinking-water wells (85%) across the region, regardless of gas industry operations, but concentrations were substantially higher closer to natural-gas wells. Methane concentrations were 17-times higher on average (19.2 mg CH4 L−1) in shallow wells from active drilling and extraction areas than in wells from nonactive areas (1.1 mg L−1 on average).

News reports, meanwhile, have begun to appear telling of earthquakes in areas with fracking and wastewater wells. In Arkansas, according to CNN on February 28, 2011,

A 4.7-magnitude earthquake struck central Arkansas just after 11 p.m. Sunday, the United States Geological Survey said.

The quake, the latest in a swarm of nearly 800 since September, is the strongest since a 5.0 event recorded in 1976, according to Scott Ausbrooks of the Arkansas Geological Survey.True, that part of Arkansas also saw a flurry of earthquakes in 1982, yet the state's response to the quakes is interesting, to say that the least. According to the Times on March 5, 2011, 'the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has imposed an emergency moratorium on the drilling of new injection wells in the area'.

Less ambiguously, the Dallas-Fort Worth is now experiencing earthquakes. Why? According to the Wall Street Journal on August 13, 2009, 'A series of minor earthquakes in North Texas may have been caused by a wastewater disposal well connected to natural-gas production in the area, Chesapeake Energy Corp. told state regulators Thursday.' The town of Cleburne, Texas, meanwhile, had its first earthquake in the 140 years of the town's history.

The process has now been linked to earthquakes in the UK as well. According to the Guardian on June 1, 2011, after the second earthquake in Lancashire since April, the corporation doing the fracking, Cuadrilla Resources, has suspended its operations pending review by the British Geological Survey. The BGS, meanwhile, does not mince words. Its webpage on the quake states the following:

Any process that injects pressurised water into rocks at depth will cause the rock to fracture and possibly produce earthquakes. It is well known that injection of water or other fluids during the oil extraction and geothermal engineering, such as Shale gas, processes can result in earthquake activity.

If fracking is so dangerous, why do governments allow it? Are they no longer independently functioning governments? In the U.S., the Congress has responded by making it harder to regulate the water pollution caused by fracking. Under the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency had the power to regulate 'injection wells' in order to protect drinking water. That changed in 2005 with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which redefined the term 'injection well' to exclude fracking from the EPA's mandate to protect drinking water underground. Here is the new statutory language from the U.S. Code 42 §300h(d)(1)(B)(ii):

“Underground injection” defined; underground injection endangerment of drinking water sources
For purposes of this part:
(1) Underground injection.— The term “underground injection”—
(A) means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection; and
(B) excludes
(i) the underground injection of natural gas for purposes of storage; and
(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.
[Emphasis added.]

(The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (H.R. 2766, S. 1215), a 2009 bill to repeal the fracking exemption and to require the industry to reveal the chemicals it injects into the earth, never made it out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.)

As bothered as I am by the spread of fracking, it is a symptom of a much deeper problem: how on earth can it be legal to break up the surface of the earth? In a sane society, corporations would never be allowed to cause earthquakes, poison the water, and write the laws that regulate them. By this measure, the U.S. has gone totally bonkers.

Monstrosities like fracking can only happen in societies where government is conceived as not playing the role of the steward of the common good and the common land. Government should exist to promote the general welfare, to protect the weak from the depredations of the strong, to prevent accumulations of power that could undermine the state's supremacy, and to be the steward of our commonwealth, including stuff like, you know, the tectonic plates. This should be beyond argument by now. That it is not tells us that the republic is in crisis.

American politics is being increasingly steered by a doctrine of governmental paralysis and uncontested corporate plunder. The energy companies, the banks, and the health insurance companies write the laws that govern them and hand them to the members of Congress who do their bidding. Simultaneously, in the name of budget cuts, they are waging a campaign to dismantle state apparatuses to the point where regulation becomes impossible. The state of Pennsylvania, according to the Times, has 31 inspectors for more than 125,000 oil and gas wells. The state's new Republican governor, Tom Corbett, plans to reopen state lands for even more drilling. The results will be more drilling, less regulation, more earthquakes, more poisoned water supplies, more failure of government to govern. This is not the free market; it's corporate enslavement of government.

If the republic does collapse into oligarchy, we would not be the first great society to fall, but do we have to take the earth down with us? Thanks to hydraulic fracturing, we are doing more than breaking up the republic: we are breaking up the geological integrity of the land on which the republic stands. And the saddest thing about it is that we know it's happening, yet we lack the political ability to stop it.

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