A boon for the U.S. domestic oil and gas production or an environmental menace to local populations?
A natural gas explosion rocked eastern Ohio on Tuesday. In the town of Beallsville, located in Jefferson County, a well ruptured, sending methane gas into the air. 400 families had to be evacuated, according to The Columbus Dispatch, an Ohio newspapee, and a specialty company had to be brought in to shut down the well and prevent gas from leaking into the air.
“The fire has been fixed now,” an emergency attendant at Jefferson County office said today. But Jefferson County’s emergency-management officials told The Columbus Dispatch that they worry about what those gases could do to people and homes in the long term.
The well, located in nearby Bloomingdale, had been “fracked” to extract natural gas. Bloomingdale, like Beallsville, is another rural village. Bothe towns lie about 15 miles southwest of Steubenville and 140 miles east of Ohio’s capital city, Columbus.
What is fracking?
Ohio is one of several states in the union that has become a hot spot for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is a natural gas and oil extraction method that involves horizontal drilling to shatter the deep shale layer to release natural gas. Along with eastern Ohio, fracking is most common in the states of Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and North York, all regions where there is a significant presence of shale bedrock layer.
The natural gas, lying deep in the mineral layers deep below the soil, is released by pumping millions of gallons of high-pressure water, mixed with a chemical cocktail and sand to dissolve the minerals in the shale bedrock. These chemicals mixed with the water are then injected into wells. The high force of the injected material can cause spills or leaks, especially in badly constructed wells, and can potentially release methane gas into the air.
After a site is fractured, drillers separate the wastewater, which then is treated, discarded or reused. Scientific research has documented the chemicals finding their way back into the freshwater aquifers. A recent Duke University study actually detected elevated radium levels in the wastewater that was discharged from such a treatment plant in western Pennsylvania.
The chemicals used in fracking include radioactive compounds. Out of a total of 650 typically used chemicals, a staff report by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee identified 29 known carcinogens, including highly-toxic benzene, with risks to human health and containing hazardous pollutants.
An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations and Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, was conducted in Garfield County, Colo., between July 2010 and October 2011. The investigation was carried out by researchers at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit organization that examines the impact of exposure to chemicals on the environment and human health.
In the study, researchers sampled the water and air around a well every week for 11 months, from the time drilling started in the wells to after natural gas production began. The researchers found evidence of 57 different chemicals in their tests, 45 of which they believe may affect human health. In almost 75 percent of all samples collected, researchers detected methylene chloride, a toxic solvent that the industry had not previously disclosed as an ingredient in its drilling operations.
Aside from chemical contamination, another environmental concern about fracking is that it can cause small earthquakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The tremors are too small to cause a public safety hazard, but the earthquakes triggered by disposing the wastewater can certainly cause damage. The Council on Foreign Relations cited reports that more than one hundred small earthquakes were recorded in Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, a remarkable number for a town that does not lie on a fault line. The cause of the earthquakes was attributed to an injection well.
Apart from the localized effects, natural gas extraction has global environmental implications. This is because the methane gas accessed by extraction and the carbon dioxide released during the methane burning process, are both greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and climate change.
These kinds of drilling operations have been made exempt from federal regulations on waste disposal in the United States.
While there is no comprehensive national database tracking air or water contamination complaints due to fracking in the United States, the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia have filed complaints the most, with more than 100 cases in the last five years verified in Pennsylvania. Russia Today reported that in the last two years alone, the state has fielded nearly 900 complaints.
Meanwhile, Ohio has certified six cases of contaminated water out of 190 complaints to that effect since 2010. Over the last four years, West Virginia has received 122 complaints, four of which were deemed severe enough to warrant “corrective action.”
But despite the widespread outcry in many communities across the United States against the natural gas and oil extraction procedure, the U.S. oil industry sees fracking as a boon for its economy.
Producing natural gas from shale has helped reduce total imports of energy by one-third between 2011 and 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), making the U.S. less dependant on foreign oil resources.
Not just natural gas, but tight oil, also known as shale oil, is extracted from the bedrock as well. This type of crude oil extraction has been the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. industry, producing two million barrels per day in 2012, up from nothing in 1999, according to the EIA. The EIA also predicts that tight oil, which surpassed offshore production in 2012, will surpass onshore crude oil by 2015 and could sustain the domestic oil supply for at least another decade afterwards.
The EIA’s projection of “technically recoverable resources,” or energy that can be exploited using existing technology, found that 10 percent of the world’s crude oil and 32 percent of natural gas comes from shale rock formations. The institute claims that these newly accessible resources increased global crude oil reserves by 11 percent and led to a 47 percent surge in natural gas reserves.
Much to the delight of the U.S. oil industry, the result has been falling oil prices around the world, presenting a special challenge to perceived adversaries like Russia and Venezuela.
Economist Richard Wolff told RT: “A larger factor everybody understands at this sudden and historical time, in a matter of a very few years, is the sudden explosion of oil production inside the U.S., part of that fracking scandal across the U.S., about this unorthodox and dangerous ways of getting oil from shale. The end result has been that the U.S. is producing vast amounts of oil, this is becoming available in export markets, and it also means the U.S. buys less oil from the rest of the world. And that is shaking up the oil markets around the world, converting what was a scarcity into a glut, and so the prices go down.”
Fracking with political backing
Economic interests not only want to help increased U.S. oil production fuel more cars, but also seeks to propel a robust political machine to advocate on behalf of the fracking industry. A U.S. accountability nonprofit, CommonCause, has followed the money in the fracking lobby. Their “Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets” report found that natural gas lobbies have spent more than US$747 million during a 10-year campaign to avoid government regulation of hydraulic fracturing.
Interests in the natural gas industry have funneled more than US$20 million to current members of Congress and put US$726 million into lobbying organizations aimed at shielding the fracking industry from federal oversight, said the NGO’s report.
But how economically viable is fracking in the long term? The Post Carbon Institute just published a new report that contradicts the U.S. government’s EIA report, evidencing that the shale boom will not last long. The report, “Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil & Shale Gas Boom,” says that four out of seven of the top shale regions in the U.S. have already peaked and are now in a decline. Another three will reach their production peaks soon. Aside form that, the EIA’s overestimated forecasts for the U.S. have underplayed the urgency of the world’s largest energy consumer transitioning to renewable energy.
Popular resistance revs up
Across the United States, town residents, local leaders and politicians are fighting back to save their communities’ groundwater supply.
This week, at a town hall hearing in Denver, Colorado, hundreds of concerned residents have assembled into a small room, waiting to speak in favor of or against fracking in the state.
Despite pressure from oil and gas representatives touting more jobs and an upsurge in the state economy, Longmont, Colorado, was one of five towns in the state to have already made a decision: they voted against fracking, 60% to 40% in 2012, because they didn’t want the extraction to take place near their town’s reservoir.
Just last Wednesday, CBS local news in New York reported that a member of the anti-fracking movement in the state was among 10 people arrested for protesting an upstate natural gas storage plant. Joseph Campbell of “We Are Seneca Lake” said the group has been blocking the gates of the Houston-based Crestwood Midstream’s facility for the past week. The group is opposed to Crestwood’s planned expansion of its natural gas storage operations in depleted salt mines, despite Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval.
That same day, the Center for Public Integrity reported that a Pennsylvania congressman launched an investigation into how his state handles fracking waste. Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat representing Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district, sent a letter to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on Wednesday, requesting “information about the state regulatory process for monitoring the handling and disposal of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) waste.”