Most people who drive cars or heat their houses would concur that finding a cheaper, more accessible substitute for oil would be a positive advancement. With benefits such as energy independence from foreign oil companies and economic stimulus, natural gas drilling seems the obvious solution. However, substituting oil drilling with natural gas drilling is not as positive of an alternative as it may seem.
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Commonly known as “fracking,” the process of drilling for natural gas is fairly uncomplicated, yet it poses some serious risks. The process starts with geologists who identify types of rock that are most likely to contain natural gases within them. These gases began forming millions of years ago when layers of plant and animal matter decayed, and then became trapped by sand and silt that later turned to rock. Beneath the rock, heat and pressure acted together to turn this organic matter to coal, oil, and natural gas (“Natural Gas Basics”). However, unlike coal and oil which remain structurally trapped under the rock, most of the tiny bubbles of natural gas – mainly composed of methane with butane and propane byproducts – are absorbed into the “micro-porous matrix” of coal. This type of gas is called coalbed methane (Environmental Protection Agency). In order to access this energy-convertible methane, drilling companies have turned to a process called hydraulic fracturing. Its name basically explains the process; hydraulic means “operated by the pressure created by forcing water, oil, or another liquid through a comparatively narrow pipe or orifice,” and fracturing is defined as “to break or crack” (Dictionary.com). Basically, a small crack in underground rock or coal is turned into a large crack using a water-based fluid pumped into the ground at a high pressure, so that the gas contained within the rock can more easily escape. The first step in the process is to drill a production well deep into the earth until it meets the coal seam that contains the gas. The next step is to make a connection between this well and the coal seam so that once the gas is released it has a structured means of transportation to the surface. This connection is made by creating or enlarging a fracture in the seam by pumping a thick fluid into the ground at a steadily increasing speed and pressure. Eventually, the rock will not be able to capacitate the fluid at the rate at which it is entering the seam, and a fracture will ensue because of the high pressure. The size of the fracture depends on the features of the surrounding rock, the type of fracturing fluid, the pressure at which it enters the ground, and the depth of the coal seam. However, all contributing factors aside, “a hydraulically created fracture will always take the path of least resistance through the coal seam and surrounding formations” (Environmental Protection Agency). So in order to keep the fracture from being consumed again by the surrounding rock once the pumping of fluid is discontinued, a “proppant” – usually sand – is also pumped into the ground to prop the fracture open. Once the flow of injected substances has stopped, the open fracture filled with proppant becomes a discontinuity in the continuous pressure of the surrounding rock. When the gas contained within the rock is no longer being held under strict pressure it can escape, and the fracture functions as an avenue for deabsorbed gas to flow back up the production well (Environmental Protection Agency).
The risk mentioned in the opening paragraph does not manifest itself in the fracturing process itself, nor in the mere presence of fractures. The danger of this practice is based upon the consistency of the fracturing fluids. However, the recipes for these fracking cocktails are hard to come by, and thus measuring their true negative impact is difficult. Drilling companies strive to keep the chemical make-up of their fluids a secret so as not to lose their competitive edge. In a comment to ProPublica writer Abrahm Lustgarten, Diana Gabriel, a spokesperson for natural gas drilling pioneer Halliburton Energy Services Inc., stated, “Halliburton’s proprietary fluids are the result of years of extensive researchâ€¦ We have gone to great lengths to ensure that we are able to protect the fruits of the company’s researchâ€¦. We could lose our competitive advantage” (Abrahm Lustgarten). In an effort to keep their businesses viable and lucrative, companies have made an effort to publicly assure people that “drilling fluids are mostly made up of non-toxic, even edible substances, and that when chemicals are used, they are just a tiny fraction of the overall mix” – a mix that can reach up to over a million gallons of liquid (Lustgarten). However, that small fraction – as tiny as less than one percent of the total – can actually end up as over 10,000 gallons of unknown chemicals being dumped into the ground. While many of these chemicals used remain unidentified, The Bureau of Land Management believes they can identify about 300 different compounds being used in fracking fluids, and of these suspect 300, 65 are considered hazardous by the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] has established several of these known chemicals as lubricants and biocides that with repeated exposure can be linked to kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage. Most of the remaining 235 out of the 300 have not been studied so their negative affects cannot be predicted. Also, even if these chemicals really are only used in trace amounts as the drilling companies assert, scientists believe that even low doses of contact with them through contaminated drinking water can have damaging affects (Lustgarten).
One instance of water contamination happened in July 2008 when a hydrologist took a water sample from a 300-foot water well in Sublette County, Wyoming near where drilling had been taking place. The sample contained brown, foul-smelling, oily water, and when tested it showed benzene – a chemical found in gasoline and cigarettes, known to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia – at 1,500 times the safe level for human ingestion. Another unsettling encounter with contaminated drinking water showed fluoride – which although commonly used for medicinal purposes, can cause bone damage or even be fatal in high doses – in drinking wells near drilling sites at nearly three time the maximum limit set by the EPA. Fluoride is listed on Halliburton’s hydraulic fracturing patent applications, which those opposed to drilling would say leaves little room for doubt as to how the above mentioned fluoride ended up in drinking water. Spokespeople for drilling companies argue that the advent of high levels of these and other chemicals happened naturally or as a result of another catalyst. Thus far it has been a challenge to prove otherwise because of the secrecy surrounding the contents of the fracking fluids – not even the EPA knows what is in them. Thus, it is hard for them to measure the relative safety of the use of these solutions in the ground. As a result, movements are being made by those who are concerned about the contamination of their drinking water towards requiring drilling companies to disclose the chemicals in their “frac juice” (Lustgarten).
Natural gas drilling companies are not required to disclose the makeup of their fluids because of an exemption laid out in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Signed into law by President George W. Bush on August 8, 2005, the act “exempts oil and gas producers from certain requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” which means that the EPA does not need to monitor water affected by drilling for possible health-risk-carrying contaminants (“Energy Policy of 2005”). This loophole is commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole,” because of the alleged involvement in its passage by former Halliburton CEO and then Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney (“Energy Policy of 2005”). Validating this assertion, Benjamin Grumbles, a former Bush-Cheney EPA Assistant Administrator for Water, admitted his knowledge of foul play during an interview with ProPublica. In order for the exemption to be included in the bill, the EPA needed to be able to prove to lawmakers that the hydraulic fracturing process was not dangerous, and therefore liable for an exemption, while also not digging themselves into a hole if their findings were later challenged. That is where Grumbles comes in: “What came across clearly to the EPA was that the [Bush] administration did not want us to take a formal position of opposition to the exemption. It wasn’t so much a pressure. It was just very clear, here is the situation: EPA officials or career staff are not to take a position of opposition or support for the legislationâ€¦I know the office of the vice president [Dick Cheney] was involved” (Bill Wolfe). Representatives Diana DeGette and Maurice Hinchey seek to repeal this unfair and unfounded exemption by introducing the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals [FRAC] Act. Commenting on the bill, DeGette said, “Our bill simply closes an unconscionable Bush-Cheney loophole by requiring the oil and gas industry to follow the same rules as everyone else” (Sarah Jones). Adding to her comment, another anti-drilling Representative, Jared Polis, said, “It is irresponsible to stand by while innocent people are getting sick because of an industry exemption that Dick Cheney snuck in to our nation’s energy policy” (Jones). While industry executives have strongly opposed this comment, one point that reporter Sarah Jones makes is extremely valid: if the gas industry is not doing anything harmful to the water – ergo, if they have nothing to hide – then why do they need to be exempt from regulations? In Jones’ opinion, and in the opinions of many others, these drilling companies have come up with an effective yet dangerous method of making millions of dollars; thus, the American people are “saddled with the potentially disastrous consequences of Cheney’s tsunami of massive and reckless special interest deregulation, whose sole motivation still appears to be the enrichment of the former vice president’s personal financial interests” (Jones). The FRAC Act is being supported in the Senate by Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. As a result of repealing its exemption, the Act would require public disclosure of fracking chemicals. It would also force drilling companies to adhere to the standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act by modifying it to include hydraulic fracturing in its definition of underground injection. Lautenberg commented on the act saying, “People have a right to know if chemicals are being injected into the ground near their homes and potentially ending up in the water supply. This bill will ensure that the [EPA] has the tools to assess the risks of fracking and require appropriate protections so that drinking water in New Jersey and other states is safe” (Matt Fair).
The FRAC Act is not the only major piece of legislation in the works that is pursuing regulation of natural gas. Three congressmen in the House of Representatives, led by Rush Holt, echoed Lautenberg and Casey’s motions towards cleaning up drilling processes by introducing the BREATHE – Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects – Act. The act will undo additional exemptions from the Clean Air Act for oil and gas rigs, requiring them to meet air quality standards. Although this law will not impact hydraulic fracturing specifically, it will help create a sense of accountability for drilling companies who up to today have had to answer to next to no one. The act will also help clean up the pollution that ensues from the process itself. Noting this lack of monitoring by authorities, Holt said, “Our loyalties shouldn’t be with oil and gas companies – our loyalties should be with families affected by fracking” (Fair). Moving to bypass small preventative measures, Senator Linda Greenstein and two other legislators introduced a bill last year that would outlaw fracking completely in New Jersey if it passed (Fair). Additionally in New Mexico, a survey conducted in Santa Fe discovered “hundreds of cases of water contamination from unlined pits where fracking fluids and other wastes are stored.” As a result, the state has passed a one year moratorium on drilling around the city, until further research can be conducted (Lustgarten). Colorado has been fighting against natural gas drilling with the most gusto of any state, completing a complete rewrite of all drilling regulations in 2007 and moving towards requiring full disclosure of the exact make up of all fracturing fluids. An early compromise between the state and drilling companies was reached in August of 2008 when gas companies agreed to disclose the makeup of fracturing liquids only to health officials and regulators. This compromise was stimulated by news of an accident involving fracking fluid that nearly killed Colorado nurse, Cathy Behr. While treating a hunter who had run in to a fracking fluid spill, she came in contact with the fluid. The hunter was eventually discharged, but shortly afterwards Behr was admitted into the hospital herself with multiple organ failure and in critical condition. In order to treat her in hopes of saving her life, hospital doctors asked to be informed of the chemicals she had been exposed to, but the gas company declined. The Behr incident inspired public outcry against the drilling industry, which moved companies to make concessions with the state. However, their partial disclosure deal was not as much progress as it was made out to be; a clause was included in the deal that would ensure that the disclosure agreement would only apply to chemicals stored in containers that could hold 50 gallons or more. So to avoid full disclosure it has been found that drilling companies often store their fracking fluids in smaller containers. This agreement was unfortunately the best deal that could be reached, because the three main fracking companies in Colorado threatened to leave the state if disclosure was forced upon them. Their absence would deprive the state of $29 billion in future gas-related tax revenue over the next ten years, so the state settled for a mediocre deal (Lustgarten).
These anti-drilling legislative actions have been brought about by the rising awareness of the risks that the effects of drilling pose. Legislators, namely in Pennsylvania, seek to update their regulations so as not to allow their communities to “fall victim to the negative effects of fracking” (“Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies”). Such negative effects fall into three main categories that are often interrelated: environmental, human, and animal risks.
The most notable environmental risk of natural gas drilling is the pollution of ground water that it has been shown to cause. Fracking fluids leak into the surrounding water tables which then provides for the possibility of the chemicals leeching into drinking wells that are for human and animal use. “Fracking is a suspect in polluted drinking water in Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, where residents have reported changes in water quality or quantity following fracturing operations” (“Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies”). Although in their 2004 study on hydraulic fracturing the EPA asserted that it posed no threat to drinking water, there have been more than 1,000 documented cases of water contamination near drilling sites in Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania alone. More recently, the EPA has discovered that up to one third of injected fracturing fluids may stay in the ground subsequent to drilling. They have also asserted that these fluids, specifically benzene, are “likely to be transported by groundwater” (Lustgarten). In September of 2008, tests performed on wells in Sublette County, Wyoming showed contamination in 88 of the 220 wells examined in an area spanning over 28 miles. Upon returning to these same sites at a later date, scientists were unable to even open the water wells because their “monitors showed they contained so much flammable gas that they were likely to explode” (Lustgarten). Although the State is aware of these risks, New York legislators are looking towards allowing drilling in the Marcellus Shale region of their state, which holds an underground abundance of natural gas. This region runs underneath a portion of the New York City watershed that “provides pure, unfiltered drinking water” (“Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies”). Drilling in this area would leave over 9 million New Yorkers at risk of being exposed to and/or ingesting contaminated water (“Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies”). Another problem regarding contaminated water arises not from underground drilling, but from chemical spills on the surface that allow fluids to seep into the water table from above. “Accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits [have] allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells” (Lustgarten). State records in Colorado have shown that between 2003 and 2008 over 1,500 fracking chemical spills have occurred, with 206 of those spills occurring in 2008. 48 of the 206 have been reported as linked to water contamination (Lustgarten). Beyond just water contamination, natural gas drilling threatens to pollute clean air and destroy natural landscapes. Inevitably, this damage to the environment caused by drilling will rapidly begin to disturb the inhabitants of that environment.
As people must have a place to live, they are very much affected by the contamination of their surroundings. Because of the large-scale nature of drilling operations and the isolated landscapes where natural gas reservoirs often are found, rural communities end up being transformed into industrial zones. “Even when done in compliance with existing regulations, natural gas production brings with it toxic waste, diesel fumes, traffic and wall-rattling noise” – all of which would be incredibly disruptive to people who are accustomed to pure, tranquil landscapes (“Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies”). Besides just noise pollution and traffic – which, while they can be annoying, are not life threatening – the safety of those who live in close proximity to drilling sites can be in jeopardy. “Because we are talking about natural gas, there is always the possibility of a fire or gas explosion. While safety procedures are in place to prevent this from happening, it can, and does happen” (REPUBLIKID: The Pros And Cons Of Natural Gas Drilling In Pennsylvania and Central New York). Just the mere possibility that an explosion could occur is troubling, as a REBUBLIKID writer noted that fluid storage tanks and other drilling materials have been kept in residential areas, and even near a school (REPUBLIKID: The Pros And Cons Of Natural Gas Drilling In Pennsylvania and Central New York). There have been several documented cases of explosions. In one case, investigators deduced that the explosion of a house was caused by methane gas that entered the residential water supply. Fracturing provided a means for the gas to reach this water supply, as it forged underground passageways through which the gas could travel. In a similar case that occurred in December 2007, “a house in Bainbridge, Ohio exploded in a fiery ball” (Lustgarten). A study of the situation proved that hydraulic fracturing produced pressure that forced methane gas upward from its usual location of thousands of feet below the surface. The gas traveled through a series of cracks until it reached the groundwater aquifer, and eventually the tap water of the Bainbridge neighborhood. “Investigators discovered that the neighborhood’s tap water contained so much methane that the house ignited” (Lustgarten). The most famous case of an explosion occurred at the home of Larry and Laura Amos in western Colorado. Just beyond the Amoses’ property line, the usual drilling for the day had commenced, when suddenly, less than 1,000 feet from their house, their “drinking water well exploded like a Yellowstone geyser, firing its lid into the air and spewing mud and gray fizzing water high into the sky. State inspectors tested the Amos well for methane and found lots of it” (Lustgarten). Following the incident, the family was assured that they were in no real danger, as long as they vented their house by keeping doors and windows open to ensure an explosion did not ensue as a result of more gas trapped inside their house. However, they were never warned that the water could possibly be seriously contaminated, even after it returned to its original color. Thus, the family continued to bathe in and drink the water, until three years later when “Laura Amos was diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor” (Lustgarten). Concerned for her then three year old daughter, who had been bathed in the possibly polluted water daily as an infant, she began to challenge “the state about the mysterious chemicals that might have been in her well.” Laura contacted scientist Theo Colborn, whose studies on the affects of low-dose exposure to chemicals are considered the most comprehensive available (Lustgarten). In Colborn’s Congressional testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she expressed grave concern at her discovering that fracturing fluids contained the chemical 2-butoxy ethanol [BE-2]. She produced “a long list of bizarre health effects that were possible at relatively low levels of exposure,” and explained that BE-2 “is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and evaporates at room temperature. If this chemical were to surface as a gas or get into a drinking water supply, it could cause health problems in domestic and wild animals and humans that could baffle veterinarians or physicians” (The Applicability of Federal Requirements to Protect Public Health). In what could be considered undisputable proof of the contribution of fracking fluids to Laura Amos’ condition, Colborn also noted that adrenal tumors, which are extremely rare, are known to be caused by exposure to this chemical (The Applicability of Federal Requirements to Protect Public Health). This is just one case, regarding one health issue, caused by one chemical; however, fracturing fluids contain hundreds of known and unknown chemicals that have been linked to dozens of other critical health problems. “Colborn believes even very low doses of some of the compounds can damage kidney and immune systems and affect reproductive development,” which is very disturbing from a health standpoint, as millions of people already have been, or will be exposed to these chemicals in the future (Lustgarten).
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A third and final risk posed by natural gas drilling is the negative impact that the influx of drilling machinery and the contact with fracturing fluids has on animals. Drilling companies may need to clear forests and pave roads in order to have access to their drilling sites, which is disruptive to the natural habitat of wild animals. Animals may also flee when they encounter drilling machinery, as they perceive it as a new predatory. The combination of these two factors may lead to forced migration of animals to another area, which then starts off a chain reaction of wildlife related problems (REPUBLIKID: The Pros And Cons Of Natural Gas Drilling In Pennsylvania and Central New York). “More than 25 million acres of wildlife habitat in the West have been leased by the Bureau of Land Management, and could potentially be opened to drilling,” which would be devastating to the natural ecosystems there (Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies). Contact with fracturing fluids through contaminated water has proved to be extremely detrimental to animals, both wild and domestic. “In one area of Wyoming, as drilling activity increased, mule deer numbers declined by 30 percent from 2000 to 2007” (Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies). In Garfield County, Colorado, domestic animals that “had produced offspring like clockwork each spring” were no longer giving birth to healthy young (Lustgarten). In addition, “a bull went sterile, and a herd of beef cows stopped going into heat, as did pigs. In the most striking case, sheep bred on an organic dairy farm had a rash of inexplicable still births” (Lustgarten). All these peculiarities occurred near drilling waste pits, “where wastewater that includes fracturing fluids is misted into the air for evaporation” (Lustgarten). Many organizations are fighting against this devastation, as well as the other two types addressed above. The Natural Resource Defense Council especially is “fighting to protect communities across the country from the pollution caused by natural gas production. By tightening loopholes in our bedrock environmental laws, banning drilling on sensitive lands and requiring the most stringent regulatory requirements wherever production does take place, we can help protect critical water supplies and other precious resources and keep our communities safe and healthy” (Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies).
After addressing all these negative factors and reasons not to drill, a reader could be left wondering why companies do it at all. Below are some of the pros to the fracturing process that drilling companies stand behind.
First is accessibility. The technological advances in the drilling process make extracting gas from “previously inaccessible sites” possible (Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies). This new ability to tap into a previously nonexistent resource has been exciting for many, and as inspired a gold rush affect for those in the gas and oil business. The fracturing method allows gas to be collected from thousands of feet beneath the earth, a feat that, as of yet, can only be accomplished by hydraulic fracturing (Risky Gas Drilling: Threatens Health, Water Supplies).
Secondly, natural gas drilling provides energy independence from foreign oil companies. “More domestic drilling means less dependence on oil from terror sponsoring countries Like Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and socialist dictatorships such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela” (REPUBLIKID: The Pros And Cons Of Natural Gas Drilling In Pennsylvania and Central New York). Many would also agree that weaning the United States from dependence on oil would be good for everyone’s pocketbooks. According to T. Boone Pickens in a comment to ProPublica, natural gas is “cleaner, cheaperâ€¦abundant, and ours.” Gas is also more environmentally friendly than oil, as it emits 23 percent less carbon when burned (Lustgarten).
Finally, the collection of natural gas provides economic stimulation. Drilling companies are always hiring, and they provide jobs that have an annual income of $40,000 a year. As many drilling sites are located in rural and often poor areas, that kind of salary is welcomed by struggling families. If plans for full-scale drilling in Pennsylvania and New York are carried out, thousands of such jobs could be created. Local employees and workers from out of town will end up spending much of their salary near the drilling site, stimulating the local economy and allowing local businesses to “keep their doors open” (REPUBLIKID: The Pros And Cons Of Natural Gas Drilling In Pennsylvania and Central New York). Land leases and taxes on drilling sites will generate income for the state, and landowners will receive royalties as high as 10 percent for relinquishing their lands to be leased for drilling (REPUBLIKID: The Pros And Cons Of Natural Gas Drilling In Pennsylvania and Central New York).
When all of these factors are examined and weighed against each other, it is my personal opinion that the risks of drilling far override the benefits – the health and safety of human beings should always have priority over money. However, the benefits certainly have merit, and provide a solution to several problems facing the American people today. If a safer drilling process could be developed without using harmful chemicals and with increased safety precautions to prevent explosions, natural gas drilling could possibly be the catalyst towards a better, more stable US economy.
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