Feature Story

Fracking 101: The American Nightmare

fracking-dangers-webGLOBAL OIL CONSUMPTION and natural gas consumption are at record levels and continue to escalate as more countries strive to modernize their societies. In the United States alone, we consume 19 million barrels of oil every day. That is equivalent to nearly 800 million gallons of liquid energy a day or 291 billion gallons per year. Daily oil consumption on the global scale is currently 93 million barrels of oil or 3.9 billion gallons of liquid energy; 1.4 trillion gallons of energy are extracted from the Earth each year. Interestingly enough, the residents in the United States represent 4% of the global population but consume 20% of this global resource. Natural gas, the fuel we primarily use for heating and cooking, is another global resource that is being depleted at alarming rates. Overall, our energy consumption is simply unsustainable and as so-called less developed countries strive to modernize themselves to be like the West, environmental catastrophes continue to escalate.

The true cost of our modern conveniences may come as a shock

The true cost of our modern conveniences may come as a shock

“Thousands of complaints have been
lodged … by people all over the country
where lives and communities have been
negatively impacted by fracking”

These statistics are staggering, yet many won’t even raise an eyebrow because somehow we have been conditioned to not think or care about these matters. Here in the West, we aim to live in such comfort and luxury where all we have to do is flip a switch to have our needs and wants met. If it is too hot or cold, we adjust the thermostat. If the room is too dim, we turn on a light. If we need to eat, we turn on the stove/oven or purchase prepared food. So many of our material needs are a quick car-ride or mouse-click away. And again, we don’t give these things a lot of thought because the real thinking that it takes to supply these types of comforts are left in the hands of others. If we continue to allow others to think for us and act on our behalf, we may be in for a very rude awakening.

It is interesting how America has become a model for other individuals, societies, and countries to emulate. Countless people migrate to this land, aspiring to live the ‘American Dream’. For most, the American Dream is comprised of big houses, fast cars, fancy cruise ships, vacation air travel, amusement parks, sports stadiums, gourmet foods, monetary wealth and luxuries where “the sky is the limit.” But the cost of this dream is hidden in the elusive fine details that we too often overlook while we are rocked to sleep by our crafty business leaders and politicians. Let’s explore how our oil and natural gas consumption is manifesting into a global horror story that we cannot awake from.

“Thousands of complaints have been
lodged … by people all over the country
where lives and communities have been
negatively impacted by fracking”

It takes an extraordinary amount of natural resources to sustain the American or modern way of life. This energy is being extracted from the Earth at alarming rates using methods that inflict nightmares on our societies. Many of the sources of energy for the U.S., oil in particular, are foreign countries. Yet, America has been trying to promote the notion of energy independence for decades because of an ongoing concern of over-reliance on foreign energy resources. We keep trying to overcome the U.S. energy shortage with various covert and overt tactics as well as the introduction of new technologies. However, most of the newer technologies are either very expensive to fully implement such as solar, wind and hydropower or very controversial such as nuclear. America now boasts of an energy renaissance because of a newer technology America introduced. This technology also puts this country in a leadership position of being a pioneer in extracting natural gas and oil using a process called hydraulic fracturing.

Fracking Well

Fracking Well

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, also known as fracking, is a controversial process of extracting natural gas and oil from levels deep inside the Earth. This process involves the drilling of a vertical shaft 8,000 to 10,000 feet into the Earth, which is equivalent to a mile or two. When the drill reaches the deep layer of rock where natural gas and oil exist, the drilling is extended horizontally for up to 4000 feet. A pipe or encasing is inserted into the shaft. Charges are sent through the shaft in an effort to blow holes into the pipe. The pipe is then filled with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at very high pressures with the goal of fracturing the dense rock and getting sand into the cracks of the Earth or shale rock. During this process, the mixture gets embedded into the cracks in order to prop the cracks open. This mixture is then extracted out of the pipe allowing for the free flow of natural gas or oil into the emptied well shaft. Finally, the natural gas and oil are pumped out of the well to be commercialized and sold to the public.

The process is equivalent to an enormous, technological drinking straw that is used to suck natural resources from the untapped depths of the Earth. It sounds rather simple, harmless and even ingenious. If a person, community, culture or even the Earth has something that we need, we find a way to take it. Right? The ingenuity is to turn this process into a business and market it to the unsuspecting public as a beneficial advancement for humanity; a ‘win-win’ so they say.

The process of hydraulic fracturing has been commercially used in the United States since the 1940’s. Back then, oil wells that were nearing their life-expectancy would be stimulated using the vertical hydraulic fracturing process. This stimulation process can reactivate ‘dry’ wells, increase the lifespan of existing wells, and give oil and natural gas companies access to previously unavailable energy sources. During the 1990’s horizontal drilling was added to this process which allowed for a huge surge in the U.S. production of natural gas.

Fracking was introduced to Americans as our answer to the U.S. energy crisis and the solution to ‘dirty coal’. A fracking boom started in the 1990’s and is growing exponentially. Advocates promote the notion of energy independence, reduction of reliance on foreign oil, high paying jobs, education, lower gas prices, royalties to farmers and landowners…win-win-win. Yet opponents are concerned about the perils of fracking on our water, land, air, food, climate and health. They claim that the consequences of fracking can be catastrophic in the next 20 to 30 years.

One of the most controversial components of fracking deals with the chemical solutions that are injected into the ground during this process. There are over 700 chemicals that can be used in creating fracking fluid by the oil and gas companies. Many of these chemicals are highly toxic, contain heavy metals, are known to be cancerous, create sterility and other health problems. In addition, the manufacturers of these solutions do not have to disclose these secret fracking fluid recipes to the public because they are considered proprietary. So these corporations are less likely to be held accountable for any damage caused by their fracking fluids.

These toxic chemicals are pumped into the ground to rupture the dense rock and allow the oil and gas to be captured. Fifty to 80% of these chemical solutions are never recovered and left in the ground. These chemicals have the potential to contaminate our underground water sources which is the primary source of fresh water for humans. The chemicals that are extracted from the ground during this process are only recovered at a rate of 20-50%. This recovered ‘flow-back’ or wastewater is a radioactive cocktail that may contain radium, uranium, benzene, arsenic, and methane emissions that are 25 times more toxic than carbon dioxide emissions. This waste is disposed of by burying this toxic compound in pits a mile underground, storing it in open-air tarp lined pits and allowed to evaporate, spraying it into the air over waste fields, or reusing it in other fracking operations.  Each of these methods are inadequately regulated.

Toxic Waste Pool

A pit of toxic waste from a fracking operation lined with a plastic tarp to prevent leakage as the toxic pool evaporates

There are so many potential sources of environmental contamination, from neglected surface pumps and improper and insufficient shaft casings to unlined storage pits. Fracking fluid waste is supposed to be stored in pits lined with a material that is designed to prevent leakage; but often storage pits are unlined allowing the fracking fluid to travel freely underground. Additionally, these liners would eventually deteriorate and fail. It is also reported that half of all shaft casings fail over the life of a well. Well casings are the steel tubes that are inserted into the shaft/well to keep the shaft from collapsing after the initial drilling of a well. It is estimated that 35% of active wells are currently leaking contaminants that can lead to catastrophic water contamination in just a couple of decades.

One might ask, ‘How can this be?’ Well, the company that invented fracking in the 1940’s and refined the process in the 1990’s is named Halliburton. You may recall former Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO to this company from 1995 until 2000, when he became the Vice President. As Vice President, he initiated an Energy Task Force which helped push legislation through Congress in favor of the oil/gas industry. In effect, The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was approved and exempted all fracking fluid from The Clean Water Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, The Clean Air Act, plus a dozen or so other protections. This policy is affectionately known as the “Halliburton Loophole”. This loophole opened the floodgates to the fracking industry. Huge new areas of development are available to the gas/oil companies because of the relaxed regulatory environment instigated by business and political leaders.

There have been over a million frac-jobs in 34 states in the US with currently over 500,000 active wells. In the state of Pennsylvania alone, the industry is projecting to build 3000 to 5000 wells per year over the next 30 years by drilling 4 – 5 new wells per day. In 2011, Texas had about 93,000 natural gas wells and shale gas production doubled between 2009 and 2014. California is another state that is a major player in the fracking industry. As of 2013, this state started experimenting with the ‘new generation’ of gas/oil extraction called ‘matrix acidizing’; this is the process of injecting high volumes of hydrofluoric acid into the well to actually dissolve the underground rock formations.

Communities that initially opened their doors and rolled out the red carpet to this industry are now starkly divided between those who are benefiting from this energy boom against those whose lives have been devastated by it. High-paying jobs have been brought to these small rural communities that represent the ‘heart of America’. In addition, you have landowners, farmers, and governments who seize the opportunity to lease their land to the gas/oil titans in exchange for lucrative royalty payments and leasing arrangements. These are the financial incentives that entice landowners to sell or lease their mineral, oil, gas and property rights to another. Years ago, oil companies were paying $25 per acre for the mineral, oil/gas rights to landowners; it was a big deal when that rate rose to $250 per acre….yet that rate has escalated to $5,000 per acre and more in some areas.

On the other hand, there are families and communities who reported how their way of life have been destroyed. Thousands of complaints have been lodged with state and federal agencies by people all over the country where lives and communities have been negatively impacted by fracking operations.

LOST HILLS, CA - MARCH 24: Pump jacks are seen at dawn in an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, California. Critics of fracking in California cite concerns over water usage and possible chemical pollution of ground water sources as California farmers are forced to leave unprecedented expanses of fields fallow in one of the worst droughts in California history. Concerns also include the possibility of earthquakes triggered by the fracking process which injects water, sand and various chemicals under high pressure into the ground to break the rock to release oil and gas for extraction though a well. The 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault runs north and south on the western side of the Monterey Formation in the Central Valley and is thought to be the most dangerous fault in the nation. Proponents of the fracking boom saying that the expansion of petroleum extraction is good for the economy and security by developing more domestic energy sources and increasing gas and oil exports. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A fracking site

The community of Dimock, Pennsylvania, which was featured in the award-winning HBO documentary Gasland,  filed countless water, health and environmental complaints. There were reports of methane bubbling out of the water faucet to the point that the water could be set on fire. There was an explosion within a home that reportedly moved a large concrete slab. One family reported that within a month of drilling, their water turned brown. Even after having various water pump and filtration systems installed, their water still contained high levels of methane, iron and aluminum. One of the children in the family would have to lay on the floor after showering because of the dizzying effects from the chemicals in the water; another child had sores covering his legs, while the parents suffered from dizziness and frequent headaches. After a year of complaints and lawsuits from residents of this community, the water in Dimock was taken offline and the community was not able to drink, bathe, launder clothes, or grow food using the local water.

In Colorado, 206 chemical fluid spills from oil and gas wells occurred in 2008 and are connected to 48 cases of suspected water contamination. That same year, toxic fluid seeped into water supplies at more than 800 oil and gas drilling sites in New Mexico. There are reports of entire farms and herds being lost due to fluid leaks and spills; there are complaints of rivers, ponds, streams, and aquatic life having been destroyed.

More and more studies now document emissions from airborne pollutants at and near fracking sites that are known to cause cancer and harm the nervous, respiratory, and immune systems. One study conducted in Colorado found that mothers who live near many oil and gas wells were 30% more likely to have babies with heart defects.

A family in Cleveland reported in an interview that the fumes, lights, and deafening noise forced them to sell their home for half of its appraised value. The noise pollution from these operations and trucks are unbearable for some because the operations run non-stop.

The impact on the local water supplies have also been devastating. These fracking wells utilize 1 to 8 million gallons of water with each set up and frac-job. This is the equivalent of daily water consumption of 65,000 people. This consumption of fresh water yields contaminated water that cannot be cleaned and no one knows the long term consequences of these practices.

The volume of hidden gas/oil reserves in the U.S that are now being accessed is expected to supply us with natural gas for 30-40 years. This means new wells and new territories must be secured beyond this timeframe. In 2010, then Secretary of State Clinton released a plan to develop the Global Shale Gas Model around the world, starting with a 30 country engagement. This expansion is now being promoted around the world by our crafty politicians. We can see how this expansion can easily filter into unsuspecting communities around the world who want to capitalize on their natural resources but are not aware of the potentially dire consequences of these practices that could make this nightmare a permanent reality.

As human beings we are extremely vulnerable to corruption, particularly when we take the easy way. The cost for our insatiable appetites and comforts is simply killing us and destroying our home, the Earth. There is a Kemetic proverb that says, ‘Children who have not been initiated into a culture of preservation are sure to destroy it; they will find it wise to burn down their own village/home to keep from being cold.’ This sounds like our modern societies who rape, rob and loot the Earth with a lack of regard for the consequences to people, the environment, or the world.

Modern cultures look at indigenous cultures as backward because they don’t have all the modern comforts of life. When modern man started exploring and exploiting the world, they never reported polluted and destroyed natural resources among indigenous societies. This is because indigenous cultures know there is a delicate balance that must be maintained in order to preserve life and preserve our home, the Earth. Preservers of life don’t rob the Earth for all of their desires; they take what they need without leaving a footprint. They don’t pollute food and water supplies or create holes in the ozone layer. These are not backward cultures as the media portrays them to be, but cultures that sustained humanity for over 100 thousand years. We must return to a culture that is committed to preserving life. Otherwise we are in for a very rude awakening. The lack of attention that we give to our level and methods of consumption are having catastrophic consequences that a flip of the switch can not resolve.

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