Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fracking: Let's Get Real -- by Donald Allen

Fracking: Let's Get Real'-s-Get-Real
Donald Allen •Reader Submitted • November 21, 2010, 6:55 am

The issue of Fracking has reached the level of national importance. It's been addressed in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Magazine, Scientific American and other national publications. It's been the subject of documentary films such as Gasland; national television news shows like MSNBC's Rachel Madow; a key plot element in an episode of CBS' CSI series; and a segment of 60 Minutes. Fracking issues have reached this degree of notoriety not because the natural gas it helps release is a vital part of the transition away from carbon based fuels; but because of the significant dangers to the environment that can the result from Fracking.

Fracking, short for Hydraulic Fracturing, is used in the process of drilling horizontal natural gas wells in shale deposits. Vertical shafts are drilled into shale deposits up a mile deep, and then up to 16 horizontal shafts of mile or more are drill through the shale off each of the vertical shafts. Fracking is the pumping of millions of gallons of water mixed with many chemical, some extremely toxic, into the shafts under enormous pressures up to 60,000 psi.; in order to fracture the shale and release the natural gas trapped in minute pockets in it. Then some of the Fracking Fluid is pushed back up to the surface under pressure, and some remains in the ground.
The Methane (natural gas) released in this way, the other substances also released as part of the process and the Fracking Fluid above and below ground are all part of the environmental concerns around Fracking. The problems are multiple; the contamination of ground and surface potable water by any or all of the chemicals involved, which are under great pressure and can flow in directions other than back up the drilled shafts; the pollution of the air and land when the toxic used Fracking Fluid is extracted to surface, which is then either store in open cesspools for evaporation or transported for attempts at cleaning the fluid and reintroducing the water back into potable water source such as rivers. Either technique leaves a highly toxic and low level radioactive sludge to be buried (typically in landfills) as the means of disposal, which can then leach and leak to contaminate aquifers and individual wells.

Adding to the problems is the fact that Fracking the biggest find of shale: the Marcellus Shale Play, runs under Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, under some well populated suburbs, towns and cities. The Chesapeake and Delaware River Watersheds also run through the Marcellus, and they serve as the clean water supply for over 15 million people, including New York City, and Philadelphia. Large “single source aquifers”, those that are the only clean water source for a city, town or suburb make up the majority of aquifers in the Marcellus Play, along with many thousands of private wells in the more rural areas.

Taken all together it is apparent why concerns over the dangers of Fracking have risen so high. New York City has decreed that it will challenge any plan to Frack in the part of upstate New York that supplies its water. The Gas Company that owns most of the leases in that area has said it doesn't plan on drilling there, but it never the less retains its leases to do so. New York State declared a moratorium on the issuing of permits in 2009, before any were issued, until its Department of Environmental Conservation has reworked its environmental impact study on Fracking. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency has begun a large scale, in depth, study of Fracking at the prompting of members of New York's Congressional delegation. Pennsylvania has already issued drilling permits and run into several serious cases of environmental pollution including drinking water contamination, requiring a new $12 million water line be built, for which their Department of Environmental Protection has blamed a Fracking company and will charge them with the cost of the water line.
All the while the Fracking companies stand firm to their position; “We didn't cause the pollution or contamination, it was the result of causes natural or by others, we won't admit to responsibility until we have been convicted in court.” They avoid a court conviction by supplying water and other remuneration to complaining parties, if they think they might lose in court. The Frackers use their past performance in the western states of Texas, Colorado and Wyoming as examples of how rare problems occur. However the same sorts of problems do occur even though the population density in the western states is 100 to 300 times less than in the Marcellus. Even using the industries own 1-2% failure rate, it means with the 8,000 to 10,000 wells proposed for the Marcellus, there will still be 1,500 to 2,000 failures (perhaps more due to increased water well density).

In an attempt to achieve some public support for Fracking the Gas Companies have offered generous leases of up to $6,000 per acre (although some of the first leases were only $50 per acre), but have signed up landowners totaling less than 10% of the populations in the epicenter of the Marcellus; the Southern Tier of New York. The other 90+% of the area's population stand to make not a dime from Fracking, but may have to sustain the entire cost of any attempts to repair the damages Fracking may create. The nature of the Fracking operations, with well ownership separated from the company doing the drilling, which is a different entity from the firm supplying the pipe, which is in turn separate from the pipe cementing company, or the Fracking fluid provider, or any of the many haulers involved, etc, make it extremely difficult to get fast, simple, if ever, judgments and payment for damages resulting from Fracking against a company before it escapes liability via bankruptcy.

The Frackers attempt to appear very eco-friendly and imply virtually compete environmental safety in their solicitations to lease with them and for support from the community at large, such as;

“Environmental issues are of critical importance in every location where the company operates. The company meets or exceeds oil and gas regulations throughout its operations. Each hydraulic fracturing project is designed, conducted and monitored to mitigate environmental impact while maximizing natural gas production.” Verbatim from Chesapeake Energy 2009 PR publication The Play

But in situations where they are required by law to disclose the whole truth to their shareholders, the Frackers are considerably more open and detailed about the risks of Fracking;

“Natural gas and oil operations are subject to many risks, including well blowouts, cratering and explosions, pipe failures, fires, formations with abnormal pressures, uncontrollable flows of natural gas, oil, brine or well fluids and other environmental hazards and risks. Our drilling operations involve risks from high pressures and from mechanical difficulties such as stuck pipes, collapsed casings and cables. If any of these risks occurs, we could sustain substantial losses as a result of: injury or loss of life; severe damage to or destruction of property, natural resources or equipment; pollution or other environmental damage; clean-up responsibilities; regulatory investigations and administrative, civil and criminal penalties; and injunctions resulting in limitation or suspension of operations.” -- Verbatim from Chesapeake Energy 2009 Annual Report

Things are starting to heat up in the Marcellus. The NYS DEC Supplementary Generic Environmental Impact Statement might be ready in spring 2011, various lease holding or lease seeking coalitions of landowners are jockeying for position and along with the Fracking companies are lobbying for the permits to issued immediately after the SGEIS, if not sooner; however the much more complete and scientific Federal EPA study and recommendation won't be ready for about 2 years. Some local County and Towns are striking their own leasing deals with the Frackers, with considerably less than full hearted support from their constituents. Several environmental activist groups are individually and cooperatively are trying to counter the big money TV campaigns of the Frackers Gas Companies with a much less well financed but highly motivated grass roots Get the Information Out to the Public campaign of their own aimed at an out-right ban of Fracking as it is now done. And as first mentioned; greater range of media is starting to pay attention to this important and growing story with its national significance and consequences. The few journalists who have been working on this story since rumors of Fracking the Marcellus surface about four years ago, are gratified that the rest of the media world has joined them in bringing the issues to the public. It's about time all of America hears about and gets real about Fracking.

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