Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”
has been associated with water contamination, global warming-causing air
pollution, health problems, falling property values and
even earthquakes. Each year fracking pumps billions of gallons of water
and chemicals deep underground under high pressure to force open
cracks and release natural gas.
According to the House
Energy and Commerce Committee, the chemicals used in fracking fluids
include over 750 different chemicals. Some are innocuouse (salt, gelatin)
while others pose significant human health hazards (methanol, isopropanol
and 2-butoxyethanol). About 650 of the 750 chemicals used in fracking
operations are known carcinogens, according to the report filed with the
U.S. House of Representatives in April 2011. They include toxic chemicals
like benzene and tholuene.
Returning fracking fluids are
referred to as “flowback” and in addition to chemical additives, they can
include many naturally occurring substances that pose hazards, including
methane, heavy metals like barium and radioactive matter. Fracking can unlock 2,552 trillion
cubic feet of natural gas in the U.S., which is enough to power
the country for more than a century. However, there are some serious
problems with fracking as well as natural gas itself.
Although natural gas burns cleaner
than other fossil fuels (combustion of natural gas releases less carbon
dioxide per BTU than combustion of either coal or gasoline), when all things
considered, natural gas is not
cleaner than other fossil fuels and may even be worse.
According to American
Rivers, fracking threatens rivers and streams that provide clean
drinking water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and recreational opportunities,
such as fishing and boating. Many of America’s greatest rivers are
under threat from natural gas development. They include the Upper Delaware, Susquehanna,
Monongahela, and Hoback Rivers.
A PNAS study found that
near the Marcellus Shale contained 17 times as much methane as those half a
mile away. Part of the problem is that natural gas development enjoys exemptions
from keystone environmental laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and the
Clean Water Act.
“Unchecked by adequate safeguards,
natural gas production has the potential to pollute clean water for millions of
people. We have already experienced instances of surface and groundwater
pollution, air pollution, soil contamination, habitat fragmentation, and
erosion from extracting gas from shale using fracking,” American Rivers said.
While it is widely suspected that
fracking pollutes waterways, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the
practice can also cause earthquakes. According to scientists with the U.S.
Geological Survey (USGS), the oil and gas industry is “almost certainly” responsible for
the earthquakes in the U.S. Midwest.
The midsection of America is a
relatively quiet geologically zone, but in 2009 USGS seismologist Bill
Ellsworth noticed a dramatic increase in the number of quakes in this area.
Ellsworth and his colleagues watched the number of quakes go from an average of
20 tremors a year to more 50 in 2009, 87 in 2010 and 134 last year.
What makes the earthquakes in this
area so anomalous is the fact that the thick basement rock underlying the
U.S. Midwest is relatively static and it is not near an active
volcano. This has led him and his team to conclude that the startling
increase is “almost certainly man-made.”
Ellsworth’s closer inspection
revealed that many of the new quakes were clustering around the wastewater
wells, which are very deep holes where companies dump the frack water once it
has been used.
As reported in the Washington
Post, another problem with fracking is the fact that it inevitably
causes methane to escape into the atmosphere. Methane is a
potent greenhouse gas, it is more than 20 times the heat
trapping capacity of carbon dioxide. Modeling studies have suggested that if
more than 2 percent of the methane from natural-gas production escapes out into
the air, then natural gas may not offer much of a climate advantage over
coal. The EPA pegs the leakage rate at around 2 percent, but a study from Cornell’s Robert Howarth suggests
that the leakage rate could be as high as 7.8 percent. An NOAA study
estimated the methane leakage at around 4 percent, but this study did
not include inevitable leaks from distribution pipelines.
In addition to contributing to
global warming , the air pollution associated with fracking also endangers
human health. A Texas
hospital serving six counties near drilling sites reported asthma rates three
times higher than the state average; one-quarter of young children in the
community had asthma.
Opponents to fracking point
to numerous cases of health problems such as headaches, nosebleeds and rashes
in humans, and reproductive problems in livestock in areas of the country with
heavy gas-drilling activity.
Gas companies are using state
legislatures to push ahead with an agenda that destroys the
environment and endangers public health. In at least two states it is
now illegal for medical professionals to report the human health
effects from fracking. On May 15, the Ohio
State Senate approved legislation that would prevent physicians from
sharing information about patients’ exposure to hydrofracking chemicals (the
oil and gas industry has given hundreds thousands of dollars to the Ohio
General Assembly to help secure this support).
Gas companies have
also resisted efforts to find out about the toxic chemicals used in
fracking. A new Pennsylvania law forbids health care professionals from
sharing information they learn about certain chemicals and procedures used in
“I have never seen anything like
this in my 37 years of practice,” says Dr.
Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician from Coraopolis,
Pa. She says it’s common for
physicians, epidemiologists, and others in the health care field to discuss and
consult with each other about the possible problems that can affect various
populations. Her first priority, she says, “is to diagnose and treat, and to be
proactive in preventing harm to others.” The new law, she says, not only
“hinders preventative measures for our patients, it slows the treatment process
by gagging free discussion.”
The law is not only
“unprecedented,” but will “complicate the ability of health department to
collect information that would reveal trends that could help us to protect the
public health,” says Dr. Jerome Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic
Center for Children’s Health and the
Environment at the Children’s National
in Washington, D.C. Dr. Paulson, also professor of
pediatrics at George
calls the law “detrimental to the delivery of personal health care and
contradictory to the ethical principles of medicine and public health.”
Physicians, he says, “have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the
health of the public, and this law precludes us from doing all we can to
protect the public.” He has called for a moratorium on all drilling until the
health effects can be analyzed.
France banned fracking in July 2011, followed by South Africa in August 2011 and most recently Bulgaria did
the same. In Canada, the province of Quebec
has banned fracking and now Quebec’s neighbors
have followed suit. Vermont is the first U.S. state
where fracking is now illegal. On May 4, 2012, Vermont
Governor Peter Shumlin signed a statewide hydraulic-fracturing ban into
The town of Dryden, N.Y., won
a court ruling saying it could prohibit fracking as part of its zoning ordinance. State
environmental officials in New York
placed a moratorium on fracking while they come up with new regulations to
cover oil and gas drilling in the underground geological deposits. Now that New York’s
courts have given municipalities the power to ban fracking within
their borders, environmentalists are pushing Governor Andrew Cuomo to
outlaw the practice altogether.
More states seeking to ban
citizens are pushing for a ballot initiative to amend the state’s
constitution to ban horizontal hydraulic fracturing statewide. The proposed
amendment would also ban the storage of wastes from horizontal hydraulic
fracturing. An inclusive group of citizens called for
a ban on fracking, in California and 50,000 Californians have
signed a CREDO Action petition that supports a ban on fracking.
“Californians from rural Kern
County to urban South Los Angeles and throughout the state are standing
together in opposition to fracking, which threatens the air we breathe, the
water we drink, and the land upon which we grow food and build our homes,” said
Kristin Lynch, Pacific Region director of Food & Water Watch. “No amount of
regulation can make this fundamentally destructive and toxic drilling safe;
most certainly not mere notice of where fracking is taking place or the
carcinogenic chemicals being used.”
Other American states and
Canadian provinces are also rallying to ban fracking along
with people in countries around the world.
Growing US Resistance
“Across the United States,
people are waking up to the threat fracking poses to our environment and
health,” said Josh Fox, creator of the critically
acclaimed documentary Gasland. “Once you contaminate an aquifer,
you can’t go back—just ask the residents of Pavillion,
Wyo., Dimock, Pa., or Garfield
County, Colo. The
evidence is indisputable that this destructive practice must be stopped.”
“The grassroots are tens of
thousands of people using their vacation days to go to rallies, spending their
savings to get the word out, and going door-to-door getting thousands of
signatures on petitions,” said Sue
Rapp of Vestal Residents for Safe Energy, a local group in Broome County.
The combination of air pollution,
water contamination, earthquakes, public health issues and falling property
values make fracking a less than attractive option.
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