Pennsylvania blowout unmasks fracking dangers
by Wayne Deluca
PHILADELPHIA—On April 19, a natural gas well in Bradford County in northeastern Pennsylvania had to be shut down for several days in order to stop a leak of fluid used to break rocks and force out gas buried deep underground. The well is being sealed, while drilling has stopped at seven fracking sites.
Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) uses a highly toxic soup of chemicals to extract gas deposits from deep pockets beneath shale rocks. Pennsylvania is home to several such formations, although the Marcellus shale that was tapped in Bradford County has been the primary focus of both drillers and environmental groups opposing them.
This was not the first time that Bradford County has felt the effects of gas drilling. In recent months families along Paradise Road in Wyalusing have seen their well water become undrinkable, thanks to barium contamination, or their yards become methane fields. Residents are afraid that their homes could explode from something as simple as taking a shower. Yet Chesapeake Energy Corp., which operates the local wells, has dodged any responsibility and joined Pennsylvania officials in blithely calling natural gas extraction safe.
Hydraulic fracturing works by sending fluid down a deep well bored into the earth, at the fracturing pressure of the rock below. This creates cracks in the rock that force out the gas buried underneath at a relatively quick rate.
In order to break the shale and create a reliable conduit for the gas to escape, a variety of chemical accelerants and propellants are mixed into the fracking liquid. Numerous measures are taken to prevent leakage, but they are unreliable; waste materials, including radioactive and carcinogenic chemicals, often seep into the surrounding environment. The recent documentary “Gasland” gave a dramatic picture of the dangers, including methane-contaminated water that can be lit on fire.
Fracking extracts gas more quickly than conventional drilling, and the resulting profits have made it popular with energy companies across the United States. However, conditions in Pennsylvania make fracking here particularly dangerous. It sits atop multiple shales, with the Marcellus shale already being exploited in the northeast, and recent surveys showing high reserve levels in the Utica shale below the western part of the state.
The toxic waste, euphemistically called “water,” is still being deposited into riverside treatment plants and from there can enter the watershed, although regulators have clamped down on the practice in the last few months and it is due to stop in May. The Delaware River basin, the affected watershed in Bradford County, is the source of drinking water for 16 million people.
Public controversy had forced a moratorium on new wells, which ended this year. Republican state officials, particularly Gov. “Toxic Tom” Corbett, have wholeheartedly embraced fracking and made the practice even easier. Pennsylvania has been accused of “rubber-stamping” applications for natural gas wells, spending as little as 35 minutes reviewing the average site’s paperwork and potential environmental impact. And Corbett has kept off the table any question of a state tax on drilling.
Meanwhile, the gas industry has been campaigning to greenwash natural gas as “the bridge to a clean energy future,” particularly ExxonMobil, whose subsidiary XTO Energy had a 13,000-gallon fluid spill in Pennsylvania last year. Gas is promoted as a “cleaner” alternative to other fossil fuels because burning methane releases less carbon into the atmosphere per BTU than coal or oil.
But a Cornell study, published in the May issue of Climactic Change Letters, warns that gas from fracking actually has a worse impact on the environment than even coal. While carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas released by human activity into the atmosphere, its impact is relatively small compared to that of methane gas. One pound of methane is equivalent to over 100 pounds of carbon in the atmosphere. The study finds that even with a low rate of methane expulsion (around 8% of the gas extracted), fracking releases enough that, combined with the carbon emitted when the gas is burned, the overall contribution to climate change is greater than mining and burning coal.
In Philadelphia, the environmental group Protecting Our Waters has been at the forefront of opposition to fracking. It has raised awareness and resistance to unsafe drilling practices, including an Earth Day protest that coincided with the Bradford County blowout. The state government has responded not by listening but by placing Protecting Our Waters, which is a threat only to the profits of energy corporations, on a list of groups monitored under the pretext of “anti-terrorism” reports by the Israeli/American Institute of Terrorism Research and Response. This shameful abuse of power (the state has also spied on antiwar groups, among others) has shown clearly which side the government is on.
The continued use of fracking in Pennsylvania and around the country reflects a reckless drive for profit with no regard to environmental or human impact. A moratorium on the practice should be put into effect immediately, and if proper environmental safeguards cannot be made, it should not continue at all. As long as fracking is done, the state needs to tax the energy corporations and force them to pay for any cleanup.
But natural gas is not a solution to our energy problems. We need to move entirely to renewable energy sources, and stop the burning of carbon-based fuels. This is one key component of a shift to an economy based on ecological and human needs, not profit. If we do not make this transition, we could all wind up in Gasland.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.