Fracking the future

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Part 2 in a three-part critique of ‘modern’ mining

Santa Fe passed county ordinances forbidding its occurrence. Rio Arriba and San Miguel counties have followed suit. Frack mining is banned in Vermont, and barred in New York state for four years while their Environmental Conservation department weighs a total ban or stiff regulatory oversight. California has also put on the skids. Over 190 local resolutions are in place across the country, resisting an extreme new mining technology.
But the hydraulic fracturing of deep geologic shale, aimed at extracting natural gas, is already proceeding in 28 states (while the resisters are getting sued by the industry). Gas-shale beds, lying 6,000 to 10,000 feet below earth’s surface, are being horizontally drilled into and exploded with massive hydraulic pressure. The gases released are piped to the surface as hydrocarbons for us to burn.
Remember 2008? Natural gas and propane prices hit an all-time high of $13.68 per million BTUs. We blanched as we turned on gas heaters or refilled our tanks. So why has the same unit cost of gas fallen to $2.50? The answer lies in the technology: hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) causing a glut of overproduction, in spite of each well costing $7.6 million to drill.

A Brazen Dive Down
Under Texas lies the Barnett Shale. The vast Marcellus Shale extends beneath much of Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and West Virginia. Ohio sits atop three ancient, overlapping shale strata — the Utica, Upper Devonian and Marcellus. So 95 percent of Carroll County is now leased and bracing for an onslaught. Other gas shales underlie many states.
In two years, the number of fracked wells in Pennsylvania burgeoned by 600 percent. Texas natural gas production has increased 30 times over so far in the 21st century. And what’s so bad about that? Well, every new shale hole takes four to eight million gallons of water, mixed with a fierce cocktail of toxic chemicals, sand and ceramics (exploded at 9,000 pounds per square inch) to bring up the gas.
It isn’t pretty. Across Pennsylvania, fracking’s extensive infrastructure has intruded upon once productive farmland, folks’ backyards, beside school playgrounds and next to health clinics — wherever mineral rights are accessible. For instance, roughly 200 tanker truckloads of water for each “frack” — drawn from wherever water can be obtained — rumble up and down newly-plowed roads.
An average of 15 gigantic diesel pumps ring a well site, ready to effect the violent subterranean explosion (which is powerful enough to crush a Naval submarine to tin foil). Across this landscape are inserted enormous holding tanks and ponds of toxic wastewater, plus refineries and thrumming compressor stations. A resident of Mount Pleasant Township complains: “Now it sounds like constant helicopters all around.”

Toll & Tally Mounting
Acrylonitrile, ethyl benzene, strontium, styrene, toluene, elevated ozone, radioactivity and numerous other neurotoxins and carcinogens are repeatedly found in air and water samples. The flowback and blowback from fracked wells has tested strong in 41 chemicals deleterious to human gastro-intestinal, immune, nervous and respiratory systems.
Where fracking occurs, a rash of children’s asthma, undrinkable water and nauseating fumes pervade the countryside. The asthma rate among kids in one fracked Texas community is 25 percent. A Pennsylvania rancher relates that the year fracking began on his acreage (through a 1921 lease he’d never known existed), 10 of 19 calves born to his herd were stillborn or severely deformed. Locals report horses going blind.
Water faucets burst aflame as highly explosive methane flares out everywhere. Methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It is now realized that due to methane leaks, fracked natural gas is the most dangerous fossil fuel of all in terms of climate change. Finally, according to the DoE and U.S. Energy Information Administration, this frantic, reckless boom will be bust by 2025 at the current rate of extraction.

The Halliburton Loophole
So why are we risking the well-being of generations for a short-term fuel frenzy, extracted at a financial loss to the producers? Can we say: “short-sighted folly?” One Cornell University researcher put it this way: “Fracking has been embraced, not because of science, but in the absence of good science.” Well, how in the heck — in this day of environmental regulations — did this booger escape Pandora’s box?
Can we say: “same old same old?” That’s right. In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney orchestrated the exempting of the gas industry from key compliance with the Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water acts. This has come to be called the Halliburton loophole — a move intended to unmuzzle frack-mining. And it worked. So far.

Now, the Earthquakes
Missouri and Arkansas (near the site of the enormous New Madrid Quake, which reversed the flow of the Mississippi in 1811/1812) have been quivering throughout fracking activity nearby. Ohio is quaking disturbingly. Oklahoma received a 5.6-magnitude temblor after fracked wastewater was reinjected there. In 2011, a 5.3-mag quake damaged Raton following the disposal-injection of 4.9 million cubic meters of fracking wastewater.
American Geophysical Union scientists just released a report on the rash of recent earthquakes in the Raton Basin, along our border with Colorado. In the past decade, 95 quakes over 3.0 have struck there. In the previous 30 years, the Basin had experienced only five! The verdict? The cause of the current swarm is indeed hydraulic fracture mining.
A U.S. Geological Survey scientist warns us: “This is a societal risk you need to be considering.” Let’s not even go there. I’m joining the resistance! Or the deep geologic rupturing now accompanying energy development might yet bring us to our knees.

Additional sources: Albuquerque Journal, Food & Water Watch, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, University of Colorado.