Sacrificing Drinking Water for Clean Energy

Posted by Greg on Nov 4, 2009 in Op-Ed |

Sacrificing Drinking Water for Clean Energy
By Chris Hedges

With coal and oil decried as dirty and blamed for global warming, natural gas is being touted as clean and green by industry and the Obama administration. Even the New York Times is on-board, proclaiming that new drilling technologies for extracting natural gas from formerly inaccessible shale bedrock may vastly expand global supplies.

But reports from across America are painting a different picture. This August in Pavillion, Wyoming, federal investigators found drinking water wells contaminated with highly toxic chemicals used by the new natural gas drilling processes. In September in Dimmick, Pennsylvania an 8,000-gallon gas drilling wastewater spill caused a major fish kill in Stephens Creek. And this month in Dish, Texas gas drilling was identified as the cause of carcinogenic and neurotoxic air pollution emissions violating state standards.

These events and others serve as a warning to communities being courted by the fossil fuel industry as it gears up to tap natural gas shale reserves in up to 31 states using new technologies’ horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

At the top of the list is New York state, where a just released Department of Environmental Conservation Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement is viewed by many as giving a green light to drill thousands of fracking wells in a vast swath reaching from the Catskills west to Lake Erie.

“The industry is calling the Southern Tier of New York state the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” says Wes Gillingham, program director of the Catskill Mountainkeeper environmental group. But this region is also the Saudi Arabia for clean drinking water, serving New York City, Philadelphia, western New Jersey and Delaware. Irreversible contamination of that watershed’s underground aquifer, he says, would be catastrophic, destroying the drinking water for fourteen million people.

But the oil industry wants the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas locked under the Marcellus Shale that runs across New York, through Pennsylvania into Ohio and West Virginia.

It takes 3 to 5 million gallons of water per well to drill down through the shale to the natural gas using the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process. The water is mixed with resin-coated sand and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, biocides and benzene to facilitate the fracturing of the shale to extract the gas.

The toxic brew is injected with extreme force deep within the earth. The drilling is vertical for the first 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Then new technology, developed by Halliburton, allows drills to abruptly turn sideways propelling toxic chemicals and sand horizontally for half a mile. The sand holds open the fissures created, and the gas flows to the surface in steel casings.

Much of the toxic water used to extract the natural gas is left underground, and could seep into groundwater. The rest is stored in huge open pits or tanks that dot the landscape at drilling sites, awaiting vast fleets of trucks to transport it to already overworked wastewater treatment facilities. Fully developed natural gas fields can include thousands of well pads, surrounded by mega-complexes of compressors, condensate pools, tanks, and mazes of feeder pipelines.

“Living with this type of infrastructure and development is difficult to imagine. You can feel and hear the compressor engines roaring,” says Kathy Chruscielski, a citizen activist with the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project. “It’s like living next to a 24 hour truck stop. Homeowners suddenly find themselves next door to an industrial zone with very little recourse at the federal and state levels.”

Such drilling has already poisoned wells, and threatened property values, in western Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, Montana, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. Farm animals that have drunk the toxic mixture leeching from drilling sites have died. Colorado cattle ranchers report that livestock raised near wells have been victim to falling birthrates and deformed offspring, while anecdotal reports of increased human cancers near wells are increasing.

The natural gas companies insist that the millions of gallons of poisoned water left underground or stored in open pits pose no threat to watersheds. Let us hope they are right. The truth is, no one knows.

“What’s amazing is that we never seem to learn,” says Gillingham. “Whether it is PCBs or DDT, we always embrace these new technologies without invoking the precautionary principle.”

The natural gas companies, however, are taking no such risk. Their lobbyists ensured that the industry be exempted by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 from complying with the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

So today, there is no federal oversight over horizontal drilling and fracking, and wholly inadequate state oversight. Meanwhile, the toxic fracking formulas used by the drilling companies are secret, and not released to the public.

We are simply told to trust the natural gas industry, as we were told to trust Wall Street.

© 2009

Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Chris Hedges has spent nearly three decades as a journalist, working for The New York Times, National Public Radio and The Dallas Morning News. He lives in Princeton, NJ.

1 Comment

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