Oxymorons in the gas patch.
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!... cold fire, sick health!
-- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
On May 2, an alliance of citizen groups from around the nation issued a call to action against unsafe gas and oil drilling and announced a national rally to take place on the West Lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on July 28. Called "Stop the Frack Attack," this national day of action promises to "bring thousands to the nation's capitol to demand greater government responsibility and corporate accountability for harm that existing oil and gas development causes."
Their press release includes statements from members of affected communities that decry the ongoing devastation that fracking creates, denounce the recklessness of the fossil fuel industry, speak to the need for more government oversight, and call for a clean energy future. Notably, the words ban, moratorium, prohibit, or any other synonym for cease and desist, appear nowhere in the announcement--except for that single verb in the banner, "Stop the Frack Attack." Which does not seem to be quite the same as saying stop fracking.
The question is, are they, in fact, the same?
In other words, with an insistence on best practices, could drilling and fracking operations be made safe enough to be sited in densely populated communities -- or even sparsely populated communities -- without making the people who live there feel they are living in a war zone?
Or do regulations simply build time bombs with longer fuses?
Is there a benign way to blow up the bedrock and capture the hydrocarbons trapped inside?
Or is fracking inherently dangerous, with no systems of monitoring and enforcement sufficient to make this shock-and-awe form of energy extraction coexistable with farming, ranching, schoolyards, fly fishing, camping, commuting, pregnancy, pollination systems, and mortgage agreements? (Just to provide a few examples.) Or with breathing, sleeping, good health, and a source of clean drinking water? (To provide a few more.)
I'm not throwing stones at the organizers of the July 28th rally. Throughout the Stop the Frack Attack website, you can see the careful framing, the thoughtful messaging, the thread-the-needle attempt to be inclusive of groups who are positioned at various points along the antifracking continuum. The positions of antifracking groups range from the stance that fracking should be classified as a criminal act to the opinion that, with better regulations in place, fracking can be done responsibly. The organizers are aiming for an epic turnout. What animates them, and their several dozen endorsing organizations from across the nation, is a shared belief that, as currently practiced, fracking is a menace.
And that is a true thing. Last summer, while traveling across the country, I witnessed the catastrophe that is fracking. I spent some time in northeastern Ohio, where the waste from fracking operations in Pennsylvania comes for burial and causes earthquakes that shake the land. I visited Wisconsin, where strip-mining of sand for fracking operations is turning communities inside out and filling the air with crystalline silica, a lung carcinogen.
In drought-crippled Texas, I watched a fracking truck filled with precious fresh water roll past a hand-lettered sign that read "I need water. U haul. I pay." The gas wells had water. The people didn't.
I was run off the road by a fracking truck in the North Dakota badlands, where a fragile petrified forest stands next to drill rigs and waste pits. I read the church news in western Wyoming, where members of the clergy decried the fracturing of God's creation.
And I was at the courthouse in Salt Lake City on the day that antifracking activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison for the nonviolent disruption of an (illegal) auction of public land to the gas and oil industry. Before he was hauled away by marshals, Tim said to the judge, "This is what love looks like."
So, I'm on board with the unifying message of Stop the Frack Attack.
But the side-stepped question of whether fracking is reformable or innately, irredeemably bad is an important one. The answer determines the list of demands. Reformation or abolition?
My current belief is that safe fracking is an oxymoron even with the best of laws and with their strongest enforcement. At the very least, we should call a national time-out and assess the results of the experiment that has already been set in motion.
Here are some emerging findings that I see as particularly alarming because, if corroborated by further study, they signal that fracking suffers from unmanageable, intractable problems:
• Evidence that fracking mobilizes radioactive materials, including radium-226 and uranium. The problem of radioactive gas appears particularly important for Marcellus Shale in New York State. The natural gas itself contains radon, which is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. (Tobacco is first.) With no safe level of exposure to radiation, the health risks of fracked gas are borne by urban consumers with gas stoves and furnaces as well as by residents living near drilling and fracking operations or the waste dumps where drill cuttings are buried.
• Suggestions that fracking fluids can migrate underground much faster than previously appreciated and enter drinking water supplies via intersecting cracks, fissures, and faults. This nightmare scenario, long scorned by the industry as preposterous was given new life by a study published online last month by the journal Ground Water, which used interpretive modeling to trace potential contaminant pathways from fractured shale to drinking water aquifers.
• The presence of airborne silica in the gas fields. New research presented before the Institution of Medicine roundtable on the health effects of fracking shows that the workers who carry out hydrofracking can be exposed to levels of crystalline silica dust that exceed the recommended safe limit by a factor of ten. Fracking operations rely on silica sand to prop open the rocky fractures created by blasts of high-pressure water and chemicals. These openings allow the gas to flow out. Silica dust is like asbestos fibers: when unconfined, it is prone to flying around, is inhalable, and is deadly. Do we really want it released upwind of schools and neighborhoods where children are present?
• The release of native gases, including benzene, during drilling operations. Gas- and oil-suffused bedrock contains many toxic hydrocarbons, some of them volatile gases. As soon as a hole is drilled into these formations, these fugitive native gases, as they are called, can escape -- before fracking even begins and long before the wellhead is connected up to pipelines. Benzene is an all-purpose carcinogen, linked to leukemia, breast cancer, and children's cancers. It's also a cause of birth defects.
Thus, to Shakespeare's list in Romeo and Juliet -- "O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!... cold fire, sick health!" -- please add safe fracking. It's pretty ugly.
Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us.
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