Written by Kyle Ash, crossposted from Greenpeace USA.
This morning, CEOs, founders, and other leaders of 68 organizations sent a letter to President Obama, urging that he do what he can to stop the dangerous extraction of shale gas that is occurring across the country without any federal public safeguards. Often called 'fracking,' communities from Pennsylvania to Texas to Minnesota are already suffering from the numerous environmental problems connected with this process to force “natural” gas from shale several thousand feet below ground.
The letter states,
'Fracking involves shooting millions of gallons of water laced with carcinogenic chemicals deep underground to break apart rock to release trapped gas. Despite its obvious hazards, regulation necessary to ensure that fracking does not endanger our nation’s water supply has not kept pace with its rapid and increasing use by the oil and gas industry.
To date, fracking has resulted in over 1,000 documented cases of groundwater contamination across the county, either through the leaking of fracking fluids and methane into groundwater, or by above ground spills of contaminated and often radioactive wastewater from fracking operations. Rivers and lakes are also being contaminated with the release of insufficiently treated waste water recovered from fracking operations. In addition, fracking typically results in the release of significant quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere despite the availability of cost-effective containment measures.'
Fracked gas may be no 'bridge fuel,' and it certainly is not 'clean energy.' Burning natural gas releases about half the greenhouse gas as burning coal, but fracked gas may produce so much more methane during extraction and processing that it could be as bad or worse than coal for the climate.
The oil and gas industry have good lobbyists, and have achieved years ago exemptions under virtually every federal environmental law, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. Companies like Conoco Phillips, Chesapeake Energy and Talisman Energy are not even required to disclose the more than 900 different chemicals used in the fracking process, which contaminate aquifers. Talisman has even targeted children in its lobbying, with 'Terry the Fracosaurus' who promotes an industry that is polluting drinking water with toxic chemicals.
Oil and gas companies have spent over three hundred million dollars in the last two years lobbying against federal protections from their pollution, so it is not too surprising that the federal government has decided to 'shoot now, ask questions later.' There are few efforts by Congress and the administration to mitigate the public health impacts of fracking.
In the next week or two we should see some results fom a panel of experts set up by the Department of Energy, which is supposed to reach conclusions on how to frack safely. However, the panel is stocked with only frack-friendly experts. EPA is studying impacts on water quality, but that study will take years to complete and is limited in its scope.
While further knowledge about impacts is a certainly a good thing, in this case 'more research' means political procrastination. EPA found 24 years ago that fracking contaminates water supplies. So far the only legislation to get much traction is the 'FRAC Act,' spearheaded by Democracts from Pennsylvania, New York, and Colorado. This bill is an important step to closing one legal loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, and would require that industry disclose which chemicals they're using.
In the wake of a New York Times series that revealed a serious lack of oversight of the gas industry by state regulators, the Governor of Pennsylvania has taken decisive action. He ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection not to report violations by gas companies without approval from his hand picked environmental chief. That’s right - Tom Corbett, the republican governor of Pennsylvania, ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to stop issuing violations against drillers without prior approval from DEP Secretary Micheal Krancer, who he personally selected as chief of the agency.
John Hines, the DEP executive deputy secretary, sent an e-mail March 23 to other senior staff, including four regional directors and the head of the department's oil and gas division.
"Effective immediately," it said, all violations must first be sent to him and another DEP deputy secretary in Harrisburg - with "final clearance" from Michael Krancer, DEP secretary.
"Any waiver from this directive will not be acceptable," Hines wrote. Regional directors reinforced the stern message in their own e-mails to staff.
Considering that notices of violation are the inspectors' main tool for enforcing compliance with environmental rules, Governor Corbett has basically kneecapped the DEP’s ability to control wayward hydrofrackers. The new policy has been met with disbelief and anger by people familiar with regulating the industry.
"They are putting us on a leash," said the one inspector, who spoke to the Enquirer on condition of anonymity because of a fear of retaliation.
Even John Hanger, ex DEP chief and good friend of fracking was against the directive. In an interview with the Enquirer, he said:
"I could not believe it. It's extraordinarily unwise. It's going to cause the public in droves to lose confidence in the inspection process." According to Hanger, there has never been a similar directive in DEP.
Hanger said the "extraordinary" policy was akin to forcing a highway trooper to get approval from the head of the state police before writing a ticket.
"It is a complete intrusion into the independence of the inspection process," he said.
Why would Corbett pander so brazenly to the Natural Gas industry? The Enquirer points out that Corbett received more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from drilling interests last year. A good investment for the fracking industry, considering that since taking office in January, Corbett's administration has overturned a moratorium on drilling in state forests and has refused to consider any extraction tax on drillers. Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas-producing state without such a tax.
A hydrofracking well pad in Pennsylvania. Image source
ExxonMobil, proud owner of the gas company XTO (bought in 2010 for $31B), attempted to parry criticism of the gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing in a recent letter to the editor featured in the New York Times. The letter, written by Vice President Ken Cohen, contained all of the untruths and PR manipulations one would expect from the anti-climate, anti-environment, oil and gas supermajor ExxonMobil.
Ken writes in retaliation to a New York Times Business Day article by largely pro-gas and pro-industry “journalist” Christopher Swann, in which Swann refers to ExxonMobil’s strategy of forming a “united front against regulation" as “myopic.” Ken tacitly denies opposing regulation, saying “Along with other companies, ExxonMobil works with state regulatory authorities to develop sound, science-based regulations for oil and gas drilling.” If the implication of this statement is that Exxon supports legitimate fracking regulation, then this is a lie. Exxon opposes any attempt at regulation of their business reflexively and has opposed all attempts at regulation on fracking specifically.
Ken goes on to parrot the industry mantra of how vital “clean-burning” gas is for “national energy security” and “well-paying jobs.” No mention of how fracking poisons drinking water with radiation and toxic sludge. When weighing the importance of fresh water versus the “billions of dollars” that stand to be made by energy profiteers, Ken has definitely picked a side. Ken’s letter also spouts the common industry-created rhetoric that fracking has been used safely since 1940. The truth is that the type of fracking practiced currently is significantly different than the processes used since the 40’s, and none of these processes should be labeled 100% safe. Just ask the residents of Wiliamsport, Pennsylvania, where Exxon and XTO spewed 13,000 gallons of toxic sludge into waterways used for drinking water. So much for the “responsible development” touted by Ken Cohen and ExxonMobil.
In another explosive exposition of the natural gas industry, Ian Urbina of the New York Times documents how industry and elected officials kept EPA findings on the dangers of fracking from becoming public. One EPA scientist said "The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way.”
In a ground breaking expose of the natural gas industry, Ian Urbina of the New York Times chronicles the dumping of radioactive watewater into the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania, among other abuses. The article describes how natural gas companies have taken advantage of lax regulation and unprepared regulators to thwart what few environmental safeguards exist to control gas extraction. Natural gas is extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. This process uses millions of gallons of water, which becomes contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive elements, and other toxins. This wastewater must then be disposed of. In Pennsylvania the waste has been dumped into waterways, upstream of freshwater intake for cities and towns.
Here is a video describing the fracking process. Keep in mind it was made by Chesapeake Energy, a company heavily invested in hydrofracking, so there is no mention of what happens to the toxic wastewater.
Natural gas has long courted a "green" image because gas is less carbon intense than coal and some other fossil fuels. Gas companies have even gone as far as calling the burning of gas an inexpensive form of clean energy. However, the cost of natural gas is enormous: polluted water, the release methane (a powerful green house gas), exploding houses and water wells, cancer, and waste of money and capital that should be going to real clean energy (i.e. solar and wind).
XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, is under investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) after a 13,000 gallon hydraulic fracturing fluid spill at XTO Energy's natural gas drilling site in Penn Township, Lycoming County, PA.
The spill was first discovered last week by a DEP inspector who found a valve had been left open on a 21,000-gallon fracking fluid tank, discharging fluid off the well pad into local waterways, threatening a nearby cattle herd that had to be fenced off from the contaminated pasture. Exxon/XTO has not provided an explanation on why the valve was left open.
“This spill was initially estimated at more than 13,000 gallons by the company and has polluted an unnamed tributary to Sugar Run and a spring,” said DEP Northcentral Regional Director Nels Taber. “There are also two private drinking water wells in the vicinity that will be sampled for possible impacts.”
DEP's sampling confirmed elevated levels of conductivity and salinity in the spring and unnamed tributary, clear indications that the fracking fluid was present in the waterways.
Exxon paid $30 billion in its June 2010 merger with Texas-based XTO Energy, making Exxon/XTO the largest natural gas producer in the United States, with extensive holdings of "unconventional resources" throughout the Marcellus Shale and elsewhere.
Concerns over natural gas fracking are widespread through the Marcellus Shale region and in several Western U.S. states where a boom in natural gas development is underway thanks to the controversial hydraulic fracturing technique. Residents living near fracking operations are on the front lines as their drinking water supplies and health are threatened by the fracking process, which involves injecting a mixture of sand, water and undisclosed toxic chemicals into the shale rock to free up the trapped gas.
Pennsylvania is no stranger to fracking disasters, notably the high-profile contamination in the town of Dimock, where resident Norma Fiorentino's water well famously blew up on New Year's Day 2009, and at least 15 families have had their drinking water ruined by fracking, leading to illness, livestock deaths and other maladies.
Last week, the Pittsburgh City Council banned natural gas fracking within city limits due to concerns over the threat of water contamination and public health risks.
But Pennsylvania is hardly alone in the fracking fight. Fracking operations have contaminated water supplies across America from New York, to Wyoming, to New Mexico, to Ohio, to Virginia, to Arkansas, to Colorado and beyond.
The Environmental Protection Agency currently has no power to regulate hydraulic fracturing thanks to the Halliburton Loophole inserted into the 2005 enegy bill at the behest of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the former head of Halliburton.
Mounting evidence of the fracking threat nationwide has yet to convince lawmakers to close the loophole and hold the natural gas industry accountable for its fracking messes. As the New York Times asked in a November 2009 editorial, "if hydraulic fracturing is as safe as the industry says it is, why should it fear regulation?"