Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is fast becoming recognized as one of the most dangerous and damaging activities that mankind has ever engaged in, and is yet another example of the extremely unfortunate Randian spirit of this age. Did you know that fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, and state water-use regulations? It’s called the Halliburton Loophole. Consider that while perusing this list of chemicals used in the initial drilling and then the fracking processes.
Fracking is a triple threat. It severely damages air and water quality and leads to earthquakes and sinkholes, while marching us right off the Gangplank to a Warm Future. None of these issues are confined to the areas directly involved in fracking, either. They spread out through whole landscapes, as air and water do.
Both the preliminary drilling process and the process of hydraulic fracturing have serious effects on air quality that every US resident should be incredibly wary of, as fracking is allowed to continue in close proximity to people’s homes and on public lands. During the drilling phase, before the actual fracking even begins, non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are released into the air. These are subsets of what are known as volatile organic compound (VOCs) and they have serious effects on human health in tiny quantities with chronic exposure (parts per trillion, for which there is no federal safety standard) because they are endocrine disruptors. Most discussions about the dangers of fracking do not include this information because it isn’t part of the fracking process, but the drilling. NMHCs and PAHs are compounds that are released from the earth during drilling, which would never have made it into the air otherwise.
The endocrine system is basically the system of hormones that controls many aspects of physiology, including tissue function, growth and development, metabolism, mood regulation, sexual functions and reproductive processes. It influences nearly every cell and organ in our bodies, so things like NMHCs and PAHs can wreak havoc, including causing delayed development and lower IQ scores in prenatally exposed children at far lower concentrations than what are found around fracking sites. “Endocrine disruptors have become an integral part of our economy and modern lifestyle, while at the same time are insidiously depleting the pool of healthy and intelligent individuals on a global scale.” Read more here.
Waste water carrying the many hazardous chemicals used for fracking is pumped into open-air pits for evaporation, releasing many chemicals into the air, including more of the VOCs, leading to smog, acid rain, spreading air contamination, and resulting in unforeseen compounds of toxic chemicals.
Each fracking job requires anywhere between 1 – 8 million gallons of water and some 40,000 gallons of chemicals. For the wells that currently exist throughout the US (about 500,000), if we assume the maximum amount of water and the largest number of times a well can typically be fracked (18) that leaves us with 72 trillion gallons of water that’s been polluted with 360 billion gallons of extremely toxic chemicals. Even if we took the minimum estimates, the numbers would be no less disturbing.
We need to be extremely concerned about where all this water is coming from, and where the chemical-laden “produced water,” as the industry calls it, is going. As mentioned, some of it is recovered and goes into various forms of pits and containers, but a lot of it isn’t recovered; as much as 50-70% of it stays in the ground. This information, combined with even the most rudimentary knowledge of where humans get drinking water from makes it absolutely inconceivable that companies involved in fracking continually deny responsibility for the contamination and toxification of nearby rivers, streams and residential wells.
The companies engaging in fracking say it’s not possible for the fracking process to create that contamination. Well, they must think we’re really stupid. Methane gas and toxic chemicals definitely leach out from this system and contaminate nearby groundwater. Studies have shown that levels of methane in nearby wells that are used for drinking water have methane concentration levels 17% higher than normal. There have been over 1000 documented cases of contaminated drinking water, as well as many people who have experienced respiratory, sensory and neurological damage from drinking this polluted water. There are even stories of children coming out of the shower with chemical burns in areas that have experienced more extreme levels of contamination. These people can light their tap water on fire. It’s horrifying.
Why is fracking exempt from the acts that have been specifically designed to protect us from things like fracking? (Hint: former vice president Dick Cheney had a lot to do with it.) It’s very literally destroying people’s lives, and we have to do something about it.
Earthquakes & Sinkholes
What happens when you forcefully inject millions of gallons of chemical soup miles into the ground? There are a couple of pieces to this puzzle – there’s how the water interacts with the layers of the earth that it’s injected into, and the fact that the known deposits of natural gas lay on the edges of tectonic plates.
Fracking stands for hydraulic fracturing. So what is being fractured? The ground beneath your feet. Natural gas is contained in layers of shale deep underground. High-pressure injection of water mixed with massive amounts of chemicals is used to break up the shale and release the natural gas. These layers are part of the foundation of solid ground, just like you have a foundation for your house that prevents the whole thing from shifting and sinking. These foundations also contain a distributed pressure, helping to hold up everything above. If you break up that foundation and release that pressure, as fracking does, you get sinkholes. Some of the most notable examples of these are in Louisiana and Ohio.
Fracking also disrupts the edges of tectonic plates, which is why there has been a 600% increase in minor earthquakes in and around fracking areas. For the moment, the damage is limited, but it’s entirely possible that we will do enough damage to the edges of the plates to eventually cause major earthquakes which will result in massive losses. We don’t yet have a strong understanding of how all these forces interplay. If we’re not careful, we could find out in the worst way possible.
There are plenty of natural gas advertisements stating that it’s a cleaner source of energy, that it respects the earth, that it’s safe and abides by “rigorous” safety standards. It’s all bogus, of course, but none of it’s as big a lie as the part about being a clean source of energy. Aside from being incredibly environmentally damaging in the ways discussed above, it’s making major contributions to global warming.
Let’s start with the transportation of water and chemicals. I made the point earlier that trillions of gallons of water and billions of gallons of chemicals are required for this process. They are transported to and fro by tanker trucks, helping the total to reach many millions of metric tons worth of carbon footprint. Even worse, massive amounts of methane, a more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, escapes during the fracking process. Methane traps much more heat than CO2, unless it’s burned. If it’s burned it turns into CO2, still a greenhouse gas, just slightly less bad. So, it’s burned off where it can be, slightly decreasing the risks, but it also often escapes directly into the atmosphere, not to mention drinking water.
There are so many good reasons to stop fracking, to work hard to increase the number of states and countries who are at least declaring a moratorium on fracking. If we allow corporations and governments to continue on this destructive path, we condemn the next generation – our own children – to an unlivable world.