THE BLOG
07/08/2010 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hydraulic Fracturing, Waterworld and the Toxic Avenger

Who could forget Kevin Costner's best flick of all time, Waterworld. Melting polar ice caps,
mutants, resource-wars, it had it all for those into post-apocalyptic Mad Max-type films.

For whatever reason, the issues surrounding the controversial use of hydraulic fracturing by the natural gas industry reminds me of Waterworld. I think it is the idea of there being nothing left but a world of salty, useless water.

Hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a "fracking), is a process used by most natural gas companies in the United States to get at what they call "unconventional gas deposits."

They call it unconventional because this natural gas is very difficult to extract and in most cases the companies have to "frack" the deposits which involves pumping up to a million gallons of sand and water laced with toxins like formamide, a "reproductive toxicant" that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says targets organs like the "eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, [and] reproductive system," down into the ground at a tremendous rate of pressure.

Think of taking a massive firehose, sticking it into a really deep hole and pumping a million gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground.

The problem is that in many places where companies are fracking there is contamination of the local water supply with nasty toxins. In many cases, people have literally been able to light their tap water on fire. The fracking story recently received national attention after HBO aired a great documentary on the subject, called Gasland.

So that's fracking, but the whole thing gets a lot more interesting when you add in the "Halliburton Loophole." Halliburton is the company that pioneered the fracking process [pdf] and they argued that if the ingredients of fracking fluid were revealed it would be a breach of intellectual property that would put the company at a competitive disadvantage - kind of like if Coke revealed its "secret formula."

So under the watch of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, who as well know is the former CEO of Halliburton, the process of fracking was exempted under the US Safe Drinking Water Act.

If this exemption wasn't in place, natural gas companies would have to reveal the exact chemicals and quantities to the Environmental Protection Agency every time they wanted to drill a new well.

While there has been some voluntary listing of fracking fluids by natural gas companies, it has always been unclear what toxins are in the fracking fluid.

At least until now.

Last week, Pennsylvania's (a place riddled with fracking operations) Department of Environmental Protection became the first state body to respond to demands that fracking chemicals be made public.

Here is the full list released of 75 different frac fluid chemicals [pdf], used in the fracking process in Pennsylvania.

Here's some of the nastier ones I noticed:


Cupric chloride dihydrate
- Harmful if swallowed or inhaled. Severe eye irritant. Skin and respiratory irritant. Long-term contact may lead to systemic copper poisoning.

Ethylene glycol - you know it as anti-freeze.

Hydrochloric acid
- yes, that highly corrosive acid that can melt your skin.

Nitrilotriacetamide
- even with a Google search I can't actually figure out what this is, but I am sure it is not something I want in my tap water.

Sulfuric acid - here's a little tidbit: when you mix sulphuric acid with water it causes an exothermic reaction, which means it burns! It is also controlled under the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

That's just to name a few, take a look at the list for yourself and see what other nasty toxins are listed.

After considering it further, when it comes to hydraulic fracking I think a more fitting movie comparison than Water World might be The Toxic Avenger.