By Benjamin Broussard at May 23, 2010
It’s no secret that the United States consumes more fossil fuel energy per capita than any other nation. It’s also no secret that most of this energy comes from foreign sources, some of which are brutal dictatorships. Our insatiable thirst for energy and our relative lack of domestic supply puts us in a very difficult position with regard to our foreign relations, a sort of zero sum trade off between oil and national security. War costs a lot of time, money, life, and allies. America recognizes this difficult position and is taking measures, not to reduce energy consumption, but to switch the heavy weight of our dependence onto more domestic sources of energy. One such example of this effort is offshore drilling. By now, the dangers of such an adventure are obvious to anyone who’s seen video feed of the never-ending fountain of poison pouring forth from miles below the ocean’s surface. The BP spill illustrates perfectly the dangers of raping your own back yard for fuel as opposed to someone else’s. With each passing day, as the volume of escaped oil grows exponentially, we learn more about how the circumstances surrounding the BP spill point away from a case of random tragedy and toward that of political and institutional corruption and decay. The risks of industrial and structural failures of this caliber are magnified in systems of pervasive corruption, and as a result, it’s only a matter of time before we are faced with yet another preventable disaster. And, while our oil and gas industries are busy pumping complex chemicals out of the ground (and sometimes spilling them), they are also busy pumping them into it. Specifically, the process of hydraulic fracturing involves pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals, water, and sand into oil and gas rock formations that lie deep below the earth’s surface. This hydraulic fracturing mix is pumped into the earth at extremely high pressures, forcing open, or fracturing, corridors through which oil and gas can travel from formations deep underground to the surface. As of now, the effects of this process on the environment are poorly understood.
As poorly understood as hydraulic fracturing may be, it is quickly becoming a hot button political issue amongst both environmental advocacy groups and ordinary people with first hand experience of the process. An all-too-familiar political battle between the forces of industry and the common people is brewing yet again and, in the wake of the BP disaster, is likely to come to a head in the near future. This national narrative may prove to be a productive exercise as long as it addresses a few very important questions, such as; how much public trust should be given to industries capable of inflicting environmental and social damage, and how to best strike a balance between the needs of our economy and the maintenance of our natural resources. As always, the wealth and influence of organized capital has already shown up on scene with guns blazing, unleashing a campaign of propaganda and misinformation as targeted and effective as ever. Whether you are faced with opposing this force or simply a spectator of the event, everyone can agree that organized industry and wealth is by far the most powerful human force on the planet.
A closer look
Invented in the 1940’s by Halliburton, hydraulic fracturing, as a technique for stimulating the production of oil and natural gas, has been employed throughout the United States on more than one million occasions. According to Chesapeake Energy, a major operator in 15 states, hydraulic fracturing is a “proven technological advancement which allows natural gas producers to safely recover natural gas from deep shale formations.” Chesapeake goes on to claim that domestic production of natural gas is essential for reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, especially since natural gas reserves in the US are in sufficient supply to last the next one hundred years. Natural gas also happens to be the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels, only emitting half as much carbon as coal per unit of energy. So, what are the drawbacks? If we invest full faith and credit in the claims of the oil and gas industry, then we have no cause for worry. According to the industry, no matter what mix of political issues makes up your world view, from saving the environment to saving American jobs to combating global warming, hydraulic fracturing has something in store for you.
To see the world through the lenses provided by the oil and gas industry, one should look no further than energyindepth.org, a helpful little website built to calm the growing concern of America’s lesser informed. From the numerous perfectly placed photographs of solitary oil pumps surrounded by golden meadows or swaying green grasses displayed throughout the website, one gets a feeling of cleanliness and natural harmony. With “The Energy You Need, The Facts You Demand” as its banner, Energy in Depth solidifies the oil and gas industry’s place in the fabric of America with its opening line:
In the time it will take you to read this message, America's small and independent oil and natural gas producers will have utilized advanced technologies and innovative engineering to safely produce enough energy to heat your home for 589 years, fuel your car for 159 years and, before the day is out, create 136 new jobs along the way.
I will be the first to admit that this is a beautiful piece of marketing. The Energy in Depth website, with its deceptive attempt at full disclosure of chemical data and its “scientific” debunking of all claims of environmental poisoning, does offer one statement of concession to its infinitely less organized and poorly funded political opponents (i.e., the American public):
The NRDC blog currently lists 18 incidents that it believes are associated with hydraulic fracturing. We don’t address all 18 below in this particular issue alert – but don’t worry, we’ll get to them all eventually. You can bookmark this page to keep up with our progress.
Of the environmental incidents addressed by Energy in Depth, the most interesting part is the way in which they are addressed. Each claim of water contamination is summarized in two to four sentences typed in italics, and is followed by a paragraph or so explaining the fallacy inherent to the claim. Each explanatory paragraph begins with the bold word “Reality” (just in case you didn’t know whose side “reality” is on) before proceeding in a very matter-of-fact manner to debunk each grievance. These explanations paint a picture, dripping with contempt, of a rational industry being assaulted by angry simpletons who know no better. The fact still remains that not all of these claims of contamination can be so effectively dismissed by industry lawyers. But, even if Energy in Depth cannot account for all 18 incidents, you can find solace in the fact that there are only 18 incidents, right? Not really. After clicking on the NRDC link (NRDC blog) provided by Energy in Depth and doing a small bit of reading, it becomes clear why there are only 18 listed incidents. The author of the NRDC blog states with no small emphasis, “I can't emphasize enough that there are many more cases of drinking water contamination around the country related to oil and gas production; those listed below are cases where a homeowner had enough detailed knowledge to know that a nearby well was recently fractured and specifically included that information in reports.” If that is not enough, the author warns further that “in many cases of drinking water contamination where hydraulic fracturing has not been mentioned as the cause, it may be because the homeowner does not know if the nearby gas well was recently fractured. It does not mean that hydraulic fracturing is completely absolved.”
The central issue of contention between the industry and its opponents concerns the chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluid being pumped into the ground. By hiding behind trade secrets protections, the industry escapes having to fully disclose this information. One laughable analogy of the importance of protecting oil and gas industry trade secrets is credited to Pennaco Energy Inc. of Houston Texas. Pennaco claims that the chemical makeup of Coca-Cola could be highly toxic in concentrated premixed states, and as such, may pose a health and safety threat to fans of any large sporting event where thousands of gallons of Coke syrup is on hand. Weak and ridiculous as this argument may be, it is still the case that no one has forced the disclosure of these trade secrets in the name of environmental protection or human health. There are, however, back door ways of acquiring this highly protected information.
Dr. Theo Colborn, an expert on the health and environmental effects of toxic chemicals used in fracking and the president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, has compiled an incomplete list of 944 of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Part of this list comes from sources of government data while the remainder of the list is made up of chemicals collected from spill and accident sites. In an interview with Dr. Colborn on Democracy Now!, Colburn explains that very little is known of most of these 944 chemicals and their uses, but of the little that is known, the potential for environmental and human harm is clear. One such threat highlighted by Dr. Colborn involves the effect of the known chemicals on the human endocrine system. She found that 37 percent of the chemicals used in fracking nation wide, and 43 percent of those used in Colorado, are classified as endocrine disrupters. Endocrine disrupters are found to cause major problems in pregnant women, often altering the birth of children. Common diseases caused by endocrine disrupters include ADHD, autism, diabetes, obesity, early testicular cancer, and endometriosis, to name a few. This is particularly alarming in light of a relatively recent surge in endocrine-driven disorders in the United States. Another such threat involves the question of where the hydraulic fluid actually goes once it’s pumped deep into the ground. Since very little is known of the specific geological movements of the different places where fracking takes place, it is difficult to construct a general framework for predicting where these chemicals may end up. The oil and gas industry’s answer to this question is simple: The fluid is pumped deep in the ground, far below access to any aquifers, and there it stays. Dr. Colborn believes it’s not so simple. She states that anywhere between 30 and 70 percent of what is pumped into the ground can return to the surface through water wells, aquifers, or rivers and streams. If the possible effects of the secret fracking formula on human health and the environment weren’t enough of a public relations concern for Big Oil, the industry is also taking heat for touting the carbon-lite nature of natural gas.
Cornell professor of Ecology Robert Howarth, as reported in Reuters, warns that the process of hydraulic fracturing is so carbon intensive that the differences in carbon emitted between natural gas and coal may be offset, and therefore natural gas “should not be considered as an alternative to coal or oil.” Natural gas emits about half as much carbon as coal, but the “well-drilling, water-trucking, pipeline-laying, and forest-felling” that take place in the process of natural gas extraction results in an energy source that produces 30 percent more carbon emissions than diesel or gasoline. Professor Howarth’s claims were immediately dismissed as speculative and uncertain by Dan Whitten, a spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance.
Where is the government?
The problem here is clear. You can spend days upon days pouring over data and analysis and still have one obvious and burning question; what are the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and where do they go? Is there an organized body equipped with immense resources and the force of law that can settle this issue once and for all? And, if so, what is taking it so long? Maybe this resource-rich and highly sophisticated body capable of protecting the American people from the side effects of the profit motive doesn’t exist, but we do have our government. Our government, at times, seems like a carcass, a shell of something that once was or could have been that, having been gnawed at and chewed up by wealthy interests over decades, can hardly rise to the call of duty amidst swarms of ravenous vultures. This is a government capable of only reacting to easily foreseeable catastrophe with surprise, while at the same time possessing enough hubris to declare that “no one could have seen this coming.” I guess everyone that isn’t an indentured servant to industry, otherwise known as a public official, isn’t anyone at all. This particular issue of the human and environmental impact of fracking was actually investigated in Congress almost a decade ago, until intense pressure from the Cheney administration resulted in the exemption of hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This exemption is why we do not know what is being pumped into our ground. However, recently a window of opportunity has opened up in our political system and, if seized upon, could result in a dramatic shift of policy.
Currently, each state is responsible for overseeing hydraulic fracturing operations within its own borders. The oil and gas industry is more than happy with this state of affairs and are lobbying heavily against any proposed changes to existing law included in the current climate change/ energy bill. In a “discussion draft” authored by BP for the purpose of tailoring the language of the climate bill, it is written that the states “are perfectly situated to continue regulating hydraulic fracturing processes and procedures.” This comes as no surprise in light of the fact that most states are operating under serious budget constraints, and must compete with other states for major sources of revenue. These circumstances are easily exploited by wealthy oil companies who regularly play the states off of one another. Essentially, a revenue starved state will go out of its way to make drilling and extraction as attractive as possible, and this often entails loosening or abolishing the regulations with which oil and gas companies must comply. In spite of intense lobbying and the pulling of purse strings, the oil and gas industry’s free ride (compliments of the Bush administration) may come to a halt amid increasing support among lawmakers for new federal regulations.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, under committee chair Henry Waxman, is working with the EPA in conducting a comprehensive study of hydraulic fracturing. The study has yet to be concluded and the EPA is already signaling support for industry opposition, as evidenced in this statement obtained from Reuters: "There are compelling reasons to believe that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment, which demands further study." Predictably, lawmakers beholden to Big Oil are pushing back from inside the House Energy and Commerce Committee. According to Reuters, Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan and blue dog Arkansas Democrat Mike Ross are two such committee members who strongly oppose the regulation of fracking under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, which would allow the EPA to oversee the process. Ross and Sullivan, reciting almost verbatim from BP’s “discussion draft,” believe that “state regulatory agencies are the most appropriate regulatory bodies to provide oversight and protection of hydrologically and environmentally sensitive localities as they relate to hydraulic fracturing.” A quick look at the Center for Responsive Politics website shows that Rep. John Sullivan’s number one career campaign contributor is oil and gas. Rep. Mike Ross is also on the industry payroll, albeit not on the same level as Sullivan. Ross and Sullivan are pushing hard for Congress to wait until the EPA investigation of hydraulic fracturing comes to a conclusion before deciding how to regulate the practice. The EPA investigation could take two years to complete.
In the likely event that hydraulic fracturing is found to be the cause of water contamination or other environmental maladies, we will find that the damage is already done. Even if we stopped fracking right now, there’s no reversing the last fifty years of pumping poison deep into the earth’s crust. The situation then becomes very much like that of the BP spill in the Gulf, one of disaster minimization, which, unfortunately, happens to be something our government struggles at accomplishing. We are much better at making a political show out of a disaster, one where officials feign empathy for “the little people” or “those hit hardest”, only to rush off to their private jets afterwards to have their makeup checked while wondering about their approval ratings. It is one thing to be a country that learns exclusively from catastrophic failures of judgment, but quite another to be a country that does not learn even from that. Poisoned land, rivers, and people may not be enough to deter the government from allowing the oil and gas industry to operate as it pleases. If the regulation of hydraulic fracturing continues as is because our government cannot resist a Big Oil PR blitz or its limitless campaign contributions and not because an independent investigation of the facts concludes that the status quo is the best way forward, then I am afraid we aren’t a country capable of learning from catastrophic failures of judgment. For those who blame government incompetence for these failures, the argument is only partly true. Its more the case that our government’s actions and decisions over the past few decades are perfectly logical given the ultimate goal of its endeavors; to serve the interests of America’s most wealthy individuals and businesses, regardless of the effect on infrastructure, the environment, or the general public. Under this particular framework devoted to serving the upper classes, the United States government is exceedingly competent.