Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Dangers of Hydraulic Fracturing

By Katie Lukshis

The Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation that reaches from New York to Tennessee, may possibly contain some of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. The popular procedure to extract natural gas is called hydraulic fracturing, and involves horizontal drilling and fracturing of the shale that requires large amounts of groundwater. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals, and then pumped underground under high pressure causing the shale to fracture, releasing the gas. By using this process, the shale gas has increased in economic viability yet has become very controversial.

The biggest controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the amount of water that is used in this procedure, and the amount of contaminated water left underground. It has been reported that in the Marcellus Shale, more than two-thirds of the fracking fluid stays underground, while the wastewater coming to the surface – often containing naturally occurring radioactive materials – is treated and disposed of. The Safe Water Drinking Act, passed by Congress in 1974, was authorized by the EPA to set regulations on the injection of fluids underground so that drinking water aquifers were not contaminated. In 2005 the so-called Halliburton Loophole was inserted into the 2005 energy bill essentially stating that the EPA had no authority in the regulation of hydraulic fracturing. The industry continues to get away with not releasing information on chemicals used to fracture wells and has also been exempt from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Superfund rules.

Since of the ‘discovery’ of the Marcellus Shale and the invention of hydraulic fracturing, energy companies looking to get their piece of the action turn to poorer communities with promises of “quick riches and a regional economic revival,” as Adam Federman puts it in his article “To Drill or Not to Drill.” Gas companies have offered as much as $6000 an acre to owners to lease their lands out to them, including royalties. One town mentioned by Federman in his article is Dimock, Pennsylvania, in which today “nearly everyone … has leased their land to Cabot and has a personal investment in the promise of gas drilling. Dozens of gas wells were drilled in 2009, and Cabot has plans to tap at least 70 more in 2010.” Cabot is a Texas based oil and gas company.

Those that do try to battle the energy companies don’t get very far. Residents are more in favor of the “economic benefits” from fracking than the adverse environmental affects. Aside from groundwater contamination, towns that have already been fracked have experienced noise, air and visual impacts, as well as increased traffic on small roads. What were once small rural towns are now slowly becoming industrialized landscapes, with most of the ‘promised’ riches going to the energy companies.

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