Shattering Public Health

A gas extraction method threatens water supplies across the country

by Joel Minor, staff writer; illustration by Annabel Wheeler, staff artist

While the government sits handcuffed and companies pursue capitalistic interests, cracks keep splintering through the underground, bringing with them the potential for danger on the surface.

What happens underground affects life on the surface.

This is basic knowledge for any Colorado College geology major. The swirling molten rocks that make up the earth’s mantel drive plate tectonics, literally moving continents across oceans. Shifting layers of underground rock cause earthquakes. The underground, just like the air and water above it, is a shifting and connected system of causes and effects. It moves. It lives. And when it’s mined and drilled, the ecological system below our feet can often lose much more than minerals or natural gas.

But the United States government and the natural gas industry can’t quite come to terms with this fact. Over the last few years, the truth of a changing and connected underground has been made painfully apparent to many families across the country (Colorado is no exception) as they make the unfortunate discovery that they can light their tap water on fire. Somehow, once-safe water pulled from aquifers is now riddled with enough chemicals to combust.

The likely culprit behind this unexpected flammability is hydraulic fracturing, a process better known as “fracking.” Gas companies use this cutting-edge technique to loosen up oil and gas trapped in tight shale rock formations deep underground. Though the scientific community has yet to draw a clear connection between fracking and water contamination, many believe flammable tap water results from the use of the new technology. If they are right, then fracking has likely already sickened many Americans, and it threatens the water supplies of cities from Grand Junction to New York. The natural gas industry has, thus far, successfully prevented the government from doing anything about the threat.

While the government sits handcuffed and companies pursue capitalistic interests, cracks keep splintering through the underground, bringing with them the potential for danger on the surface. Both the public and private sectors could use a wake up call and a geology lesson.

How does fracking work? If you can imagine a shale gas reserve as a glass kitchen plate with hundreds of air bubbles full of natural gas trapped within it, fracking would be like pressing down on the plate with your thumb until the glass shatters.

Steve Quane, a visiting professor at CC from 2006 to 2009, explains the process more technically. “Tight shales do not have sufficient porosity for the fluid [oil or natural gas] to freely flow through them and up the well for production. Hydraulic fracturing is done by injecting a pressurized fluid into a pre-existing bore hole in order to induce fractures in the surrounding oil or gas containing rock. Essentially, you need a fluid that is at a pressure greater than the strength of the rock. Once you have that, you break the rock and open a fracture.”

I’m not a geologist by any means, so the whole process didn’t sound too bad to me—until Quane went on to explain that the high-pressure fluid must contain not only water, but also sand and a toxic soup of other chemicals. “If you fractured a rock with just water, the fractures would seal almost immediately due to pressure induced by the surrounding rock. The doping agent allows the fractures to remain open . . . allowing more oil or gas to flow up to the well head for production.” It’s like cracking the plate and then injecting those cracks with corrosive, high-pressure acid.

To draw out the dispersed molecules of oil and gas hidden in tiny corners of the shale, hydraulic fracturing fluid is ‘doped’ with chemicals derived from the fossil fuels themselves, such as benzene, xylene, and toluene. Companies use these chemicals, known to be highly toxic, carcinogenic, and damaging to internal to internal organs, to keep cracks open and the gas flowing.

Even though the chemicals involved are toxic, there is no reason that the process of hydraulic fracturing would necessarily end up producing flammable tap water. If used in the right way, the chemicals could sit buried safe below the surface for eternity. But there are two other factors that make contamination as a result of fracking all the more likely. The first is a matter of science, the second a matter of public policy.

Hydraulic fracturing is only necessary to access certain types of natural gas deposits, known as shale gas, and is actually very rarely used to extract oil. Shale gas is typically located below the water table, which consists of the geologic layers that contain groundwater. Thus, as Quane explains, “the fracking liquids must be injected through the water table in order to get to the depth of the oil and gas reserves.”

Shale deposits represent most of the natural gas left in the United States, because the easier-to-access deposits have mostly already been depleted. In fact, the development of hydraulic fracturing technology has resulted in a major boom in natural gas extraction in areas where there is abundant shale gas, including several basins in Colorado, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, northern Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. The areas where the most intense drilling occurs—including Weld County in Colorado and the Catskills in New York—are the source of the drinking water for millions of people, including the residents of New York City. While the contamination is relatively dispersed, over time it can build up to be a significant threat to public health.

To cut costs and increase efficiency when drilling so deep underground, oil and gas companies typically use a process called “directional drilling,” in which wells are drilled for very long distances in all directions from a single wellhead, instead of drilling just one hole straight into the ground. According to Quane, this means that “oil and gas wells are coming increasingly closer to urban area water tables, increasing the likelihood of groundwater contamination. In my opinion, this is a major issue.”

Quane is right to be concerned. If a natural gas well is drilled diagonally through the aquifer that a family gets their well water from, it can result in direct contamination of the family’s tap water.

The second factor that makes hydraulic fracturing a matter of public concern is the fact that the chemicals used in fracking are the only chemicals used in a major industrial operation that are exempted from the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and Clean Water Act. That’s right—the chemicals currently being injected through the groundwater that people, plants and animals eventually drink are not being regulated by the Federal government.

As an Environmental Policy major, I have learned about the variety of laws that protect our nation’s rivers, air, forests, and groundwater in nearly every class I have taken, including Quane’s Economic Geology course. So when I learned that fracking fluids are exempt from environmental regulation, I was shocked.

It turns out that, as is often the case, former Colorado College parent Dick Cheney is largely to blame. The SDWA requires corporations to disclose the specific chemicals they release into sources of drinking water. But Halliburton, Cheney’s former employer, owns the original patent on fracking’s most commonly used chemical cocktail. The corporation did not want to disclose the contents of their fluids, thereby creating opportunities for competitors to try to make their own fluids. As a result of Cheney’s lobbying and studies produced by oil-company scientists, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which contains the exemptions for fracking fluids.

Fracking and the powers behind it have managed to splinter more than just solid rock. Aquifers that many rely on could be bearing the same pressure and damage as the desired shale gas. And the companies behind the technique have also helped to shatter any regulation that might dictate the kinds of chemicals injected into the ground.

Even worse, fracking can get into the environment in far more ways than just through groundwater contamination. Although the Deepwater Horizon oil spill captured the nation’s attention this summer, smaller scale spills happen on a daily basis. According to the Denver Post, almost 4.5 million gallons of fracking fluid were reported spilled in Colorado between January 2008 and July 2010 alone. Who knows how many spills companies might have been able to hide or neglect entirely?

Many of these spills also release fracking chemicals into surface waters, such as rivers and lakes, which are more likely to be a source of drinking water than is groundwater. Small scale spills of fracking chemicals are no less dangerous than large scale spills like Deepwater Horizon. Yet the government is willing to turn a blind eye on them, and even exempt the companies causing major environmental damage from regulation because the smaller spills get much less media attention.

In addition to spills and contamination during the fracking process itself, once fracking fluid has been used up and sucked back out of the well, it is stored in settling ponds. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, settling ponds at oil and gas wells kill two million birds a year in the Western half of the US alone. And in some states, settling ponds are not required to be lined with even the thinnest sheets of plastic, allowing the contaminated water to seep directly into the water table.

Luckily, there’s hope. Last year, several members of Congress, including Representative Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and CC alumna Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act. Although the bill has support from Democrats in states most affected by fracking (Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania), it is moving through Congress relatively slowly.

The natural gas industry has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the FRAC Act. The industry argues that there is little conclusive scientific evidence that fracking has any public health consequences. And they’re right—up to a point.

Leah Fugere is a junior political science major from Grand Junction, Colorado, a town located in the heart of Fracking Country. As a result, she is a passionate advocate for the passage of the FRAC Act. “It makes me so angry,” she said. “[They] say we can’t make any decisions without more information, but we can’t get any more information about the public health consequences unless the chemicals in fracking fluid are disclosed. And the chemicals can’t be disclosed unless we eliminate the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption, which is the decision they say we can’t make in the first place until we get the information.”

Fugere is right. If a toxic chemical is found in the tap water in a house that gets its water from a well located next to a fracking operation, companies can always claim that the chemical in question is not found in their fracking fluid. And, since the companies aren’t legally required to disclose the contents of their fracking fluids, no one will ever really know whether or not they’re telling the truth.

Many argue that the government should not act in the absence of conclusive evidence that a process is causing harm, but, if Bush and Cheney are any example, we know the opposite is true. We didn’t need conclusive evidence  of weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq. Danger lurked, and government answered. The government didn’t wait for evidence that the Deepwater Horizon spill was harming the environment before starting to clean it up. When it comes to dealing with environmental risks, a precautionary approach is often better than a reactive approach.

Colorado College students have already taken action to encourage the regulation of fracking fluids. In November, seniors Hope Morgenstern and Lizzy Stephan organized, through EnAct and CCSGA, a screening of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival special prize winning film Gasland, a documentary on fracking and the natural gas industry.

Such activism is important because many reports are beginning to trace everything from chronic headaches to higher rates of cancer to families getting their water from areas where hydraulic fracturing is common. The issue hits close to home for Fugere.

“I know the son of the Ellsworths, who were in Gasland. To see the situation they had to live in [using only bottled water and suffering from chronic headaches] was very disheartening,” she said. “The Ellsworths tried to communicate with the gas companies, but there was no recourse open to them. Their son is a firefighter with the Colorado “14er’s” initiative. It’s sad that he’s doing beautiful things for Colorado, but the companies won’t listen to [him or his family].”

On the surface, life goes on. The Colorado Legislature has pushed a bill that will change most of Colorado’s power plants from coal to natural gas over the next decade, helping to keep our air free of smog. And the Ellsworths still use their tap to drink and clean dishes. For the sake of the state, it is imperative that Congress pass the FRAC Act before the contamination of ground and surface water becomes even more extensive, devastating ecosystems and potentially causing chronic illness for thousands of Americans. Whether we like it or not, the people above the surface will always rely on the ecology below it.

Shattering Public Health (PDF)

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