We all know that the affordability, efficiency, and sustainability of cleaner, greener energy will be a major challenge for this century. Some have called natural gas a better and cleaner energy source. Yet, even if we set aside this hot air, the process of extracting the gas (called hydraulic fracturing or fracking) proves problematic for both environmentalists as well as those in proximity to the wells. This article covers five major problems with fracking, based on two SnagFilms from the After the Gas Rush series, you can view by clicking here.
1. Water Pollution
The fracking process involves pumping large quantities of water, chemicals, and sand deep underground. This process produces a huge amount of pressure, which both extracts the natural gas and forces much of the water back to the surface.
The major concern with polluted water is that the salts, radium, other heavy metals, and benzene (a carcinogenic and flammable chemical) are forced back up to the surface with the rest of the wastewater. For efficiency, fracking companies want to reuse this wastewater and they subsequently treat the water so that the excess waste does not plug up parts of the well. Consequently, the products that have been removed (radium, and some other heavy metals) are disposed of. However, the water that gets reused still contains salts and benzene. The water is then pumped back underground, endangering aquifers.
2. Proximity to Residential Areas—Fumes and Earthquakes
In addition to the risk of water contamination for those near fracking sites, wells also produce excess gases, which are either simply released into the air or burned upon their release. These fumes both leave an odor as well as present the possibility of negative health effects for those in proximity to the wells. Such effects include dizziness, confusion, and nasal bleeding. There is also growing evidence to support the theory that fracking can produce minor earthquakes within the vicinity of fracking wells. This may not be as surprising as it sounds considering the amount of pressure (around 8,000 pounds per square inch) that the gas extraction process exerts on shale rock deep beneath the surface.
3. Property Rights
It is often the case that when someone buys a property, his or her rights do not extend to the subterranean levels where fracking companies aim to extract natural gas. These multinational companies purchase/lease the mineral rights to the land, and thus they legally are allowed to accesses those minerals through drilling as long as they pay damages to the surface owner (these damages are often do not satisfactorily cover the actually property loss, as average Americans find themselves up against massive corporate interests). Additionally many leases do not require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination. Many American landowners, farmers, and families are thus placed at the mercy of drilling companies who can legally exercise their mineral rights largely regardless of what lays on the surface.
4. Lack of Governmental Regulation
Aside from the government’s lack of regulations on carbon emissions, the disposal of fracking waste products needs better oversight. As noted, the wastewater that rises to the surface during fracking is treated and then reused. After treatment, the waste that is extracted from the wastewater is placed in a landfill, as it is exempt from federal regulations pertaining to toxic waste. This lack of regulation does not recognize the fact that such waste can be extremely dangerous for the environment. As described, the cancerous and flammable benzene, other heavy metals, radium, and corrosive salts remain in the waste. However, regardless of how dangerous these chemicals may be, it is not treated as hazardous waste. If the waste is treated as normal garbage, then these toxic materials may endanger people’s health and the environment’s wellbeing for years to come.
5. Industry Growth
Compounding all of these factors is the fact that the natural gas industry is ballooning. In After the Gas Rush, Roshini Thinakaran states that in Pennsylvania alone 50,000 new wells will be permitted to be drilled over the next two decades. The result of this will be both an explosion in the burning of natural gas as well as in water contamination. One million gallons of toxic wastewater will be produced by each well within the first thirty days of its operation. One can only imagine the degree of environmental damage these wells may have after only a year’s time. Similar expansion is also occurring in states such as New York, West Virginia and Ohio.
Below is SnagFilms’s After the Gas Rush series. In the films, Roshini Thinakaran leads us into Pennsylvania to see how fracking affects the environment and the lives of those living within the vicinity of fracking wells. We invite you to watch the films here or at snagfilms.com and share them with others interested in the subject.
To see After the Gas Rush, click here.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) detection of arsenic, a known human carcinogen, barium and other contaminants in the well water of homes near natural gas drilling operations in Dimock Township, Pa., should prompt a nationwide investigation of drilling-linked water pollution.
"EPA and other officials must move quickly to ensure these families have an adequate source of clean water," said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel with Environmental Working Group (EWG). "This finding confirms what Dimock residents have said for months—that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should have never allowed Cabot to end deliveries of clean water."
Last month, EWG published a report called Gas Drilling Doublespeak that found that Dimock residents, among other people in gas-rich areas, were not warned of risks to their water supplies when they were approached to lease their land for drilling.
EPA officials in Philadelphia announced they would deliver clean water to the four affected households and conduct broader testing at about 60 more homes in south-central area Susquehanna County. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the Houston-based company that began drilling for gas in the area in 2008, delivered water to the households under a 2010 consent agreement but stopped Nov. 30 after state regulators determined that Cabot had met its obligations.
According to an EPA action memo, agency scientists found the four households’ well water contaminated with arsenic and other hazardous substances “at levels that present a public health concern.” Some of these “are not naturally found in the environment,” EPA officials said, and may have been released by drilling activities. Among the toxic substances found in the well water, according to the EPA:
Arsenic, classified by the US government and World Health Organization as a known human carcinogen, an element sometimes found in “elevated concentrations” in groundwater because of drilling;
- Barium, a common constituent of drilling fluids; long-term ingestion at high levels can cause kidney damage
- Phthalates, a synthetic plastic chemical and probable human carcinogen, according to EPA
- Glycol compounds common in drilling fluids and associated with damage to kidneys, the nervous system, lungs, heart, testicular damage and anemia
- Manganese, an naturally occurring element that can damage the nervous system at high levels
- Phenol, found in some drilling fluids; at high levels can cause irregular heartbeat, liver damage and skin burns
- Sodium, compounds found in some drilling fluids, at high levels can cause high blood pressure
Federal officials said that although the investigation has not been completed, they have concluded, based on samplings to date, that a “chronic health risk exists” for the wells in question.
"These results also show that the families ultimately need a permanent source of healthy water, which the state has so far failed to deliver," Horwitt said. "Cabot should bear the cost of providing this, not the taxpayers."
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Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.