Every year, more than 100 billion gallons of water are used in the United States for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process that breaks up rock in order to force out millions of cubic feet of natural gas. But if we charged the fracking companies for their use of freshwater in a realistic way, fracking would end in an instant.
Why is that? Well, if you use a gallon of water to take a shower or flush the toilet, that water gets mixed with basically harmless stuff that can be treated. Afterwards the water is put back into the stream of life, back into the water cycle of the whole planet. If a farmer uses a gallon to grow tomatoes, the time it takes for the water to come back into the natural cycle is even shorter.
When a petrochemical company uses a gallon of freshwater to "split open the depths of the earth," most of that water stays deep underground. It needs to stay far beneath even the deepest aquifers and away from the water we use for drinking and agriculture, because otherwise it would poison the groundwater and aquifers near where fracking takes place.
Other extractive industries also use huge amounts of water, but the many millions of gallons of the water used to frack a well are not just used one time and returned to the ecosystem. They are being used up for all the possible times they would ever have cycled through the Earth's streams and seas and atmosphere as part of the lifeblood of this planet, for potentially millions of years.
What does it mean to lose most of that water, essentially forever? According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), it could be considered a sin against the water itself.
Kabbalah imagines the world and its elements as yearning, longing, to be raised higher and higher into consciousness, into the process of life and love. This can happen whenever a more sentient life form like a human being takes in a more basic substance (like when we drink water), and it happens through the process of evolution itself, where life comes from the elements and develops greater and greater capacities for connection and awareness.
In Kabbalah, the very symbol of blessing and of divine wisdom, of emergence and life, of Chesed (or "lovingkindness"), is water. If we take these ideas seriously, then the water that stays in the fracked rock is deprived of fulfilling its deepest purpose.
By conventional environmental ethics, one should just be thankful that most of the water stays far below the ground. That's because the fracking company first mixes that gallon with its own proprietary blend of poison that will make the solution flow easily yet still be very dense--dense enough to fissure huge rock formations at high pressures.
When it injects millions of gallons of this solution into the ground, the water absorbs more poisons: radioactive elements, salts, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, etc. When the well starts to produce methane gas, anywhere from 20-50% of the fracking solution (hundreds of thousands to a million-plus gallons) comes back up the well-bore along with gas, in the form of what's called "flowback water" mixed together with "produced water," all of it highly contaminated.
The fracking industry is still struggling to figure out how to handle it. Sometimes, the flowback water gets diluted with freshwater on site and sent straight into our streams and rivers. It can also be deep-injected into isolated rock formations, where it may lubricate faults and cause earthquakes. Or, in a version of recycling unique to the oil and gas industry, it can be added to more freshwater for re-fracking the same well or fracking the next well.
There are other adverse impacts that fracking has on our water supply. Withdrawing millions of gallons of water from an ecosystem, river or well can cause terrific damage in and of itself -- all the more so in drought-ravaged areas of the West and Midwest, where so much fracking takes place. And we don't know whether fracking fluid and natural gas will come up through old abandoned wells that intersect with fractured rock.
One thing we do know for sure, however, is that when a fracking operation "withdraws" a gallon of water from an aquifer or stream, half or more of that is a permanent withdrawal.
It would make a huge difference if the fracking companies were just charged for the "cradle-to-grave" use of all these millions of gallons of water, including the costs of the predictable spills and the technology needed to treat the water that doesn't spill. But we can go further than that.
Let's be very conservative and say that there are 100,000 times that this water could be used that are gone in one shot. How much does a gallon of water times 100,000 cost? More than a cubic foot of gas? More than 50,000 cubic feet of gas.
This magnification of the value of water is no exaggeration. If anything, the price is far too low. In 100 years, the people who are alive will look back in utter horror to think of how we wasted and ruined our precious water resources in order to bring more and more poison up to the surface of this very good and beautiful planet.
For science and ecology, as for Kabbalah, water is the very substance of life. So shall we take this gallon of water, brought here in this planet's early childhood by comets of ice, this gallon that has passed through the forms of sky and cloud and ocean for billions of years, and even cycled through cytoplasm and breath, sap and blood, and remove it from life's cycle? Is that what the water would will, if it could will?
You see, even if we didn't have to worry about tap water catching fire, even if we didn't have to worry about hundreds of thousands of acres of land being taken over by wells and collection pits and truck roads, or about all the escaped methane being driven into the atmosphere (where it will accelerate global climate disruption 20 times more powerfully than carbon dioxide) -- even without these things, fracking, and the attitude behind fracking, would still be a danger to the well-being of the planet.
Ban? Moratorium? Regulation? That's beside the point, once the actual consequences for the planet's freshwater are assigned a cost. If people want to stop fracking, if municipalities and citizens want to take control of their land from rapacious companies and know-nothing state governments, then let's charge the companies for what our precious water is really worth.
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org. He teaches on ecology, spirit and Judaism through his website and throughout North America and the world. His first book, on ecology and Kabbalah, will be coming out this year.