My father was an important executive in the natural gas industry. Before he died in 1997, he had been president of a municipal gas company, president of the Southern Gas Association, and a board member of the American Gas Association. When my grammar school science book worried me by stating that the world would run out of fossil fuels within a century, he reassured me that we have enough coal to last a millennium and new deposits of oil and natural gas were being found every day.
Still, toward the end of his career, I noticed that he was traveling farther afield either by helicopter to drilling rigs far out in the Gulf of Mexico or by private jet to Algeria to investigate new discoveries of natural gas. Was it getting harder to find gas? He would have been delighted at the current boom right here in America in hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits to release their natural gas. A chip off the old block, I have reveled, as he would have, in the dramatic results now being achieved with this method.
However, my views have now been completely reversed by two documentaries, Gasland and Gasland Part II, and by the all-out and totally unscrupulous efforts by the gas industry to discredit the information provided by those two films. I have little love for environmentalists, but, when they are right, we must pay attention, and this is just such a case.
Both films are by Josh Fox, who won me over to his cause with both hard facts and sad human interest stories. He lives in Pennsylvania in the Delaware River Basin, which is over the huge Marcellus Shale deposit. He was offered about $100,000 for drilling rights on his property. He decided to investigate. What he found was shocking.
The Marcellus Formation encompasses large regions of Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, and other areas. It is one of several such deposits in North America and throughout the world. The shale contains massive amounts of natural gas, which is mainly methane. This gas is recovered by a process of drilling down through bedrock to the deposit, redirecting the drill to a horizontal path deep within the shale, and pumping liquid into the hole at extreme pressure. This fractures the shale, releasing the gas which then flows to the surface under pressure.
Gas industry ads blanketing television now are intended to show you how safe this process is and how we all benefit from it. The ads show how this “fracked” shale is separated by thousands of feet of rock from the aquifers high above and how steel casings and cement liners prevent any gas from escaping into the aquifer.
Unfortunately, data provided by the industry itself shows that about 5% of cement liners fail immediately, and, over time, more than half fail. When the liners fail, the gas is free to leak, polluting the ground, the water, and the air. The result is tap water that contains methane, other gases, and chemicals. You have likely seen the iconic films of people in affected areas lighting their taps on fire. The documentaries capture extraordinarily numerous cases of severe gas pollution. Special FLIR cameras captured scenes of massive amounts of methane escaping from the drilling sites, polluting the air. In some cases shown, this gas catches on fire, producing frightening displays. Unburned, methane gas is 21 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Texas environmental scientists have proven that there is more air pollution in the Fort Worth area from these wells than from all of the cars, trucks, and motorcycles there.
However, that is not the only source of pollution. The drilling fluid used to lubricate the drill and the fracking water used to liberate the gas contain harmful chemicals that the industry has neatly shielded by law from clean air and water regulations. By law, they do not even have to reveal what these chemicals are. These chemicals, many known carcinogens and neurotoxins, are also found in the drinking water of people in the areas where drilling has occurred. The industry claims disingenuously that the water was always naturally polluted and demands that the residents prove that the drilling caused the pollution. Prior to the drilling residents had no occasion to test the sweet well water that generations of their families had used in good health. Post-drilling tests show the contamination, but without pre-drilling samples for comparison, it is tough to make a case in court.
Industry ads show idyllic farms with small drilling rigs, hardly disturbing the pastoral scene. In fact, the industry bulldozes entire forests to put up hundreds of wells, large “condensate tanks,” and huge amounts of equipment and piping. Hundreds of trucks bring in equipment, concrete, drilling fluid, and fracking water over newly bulldozed roads. No effort is made to prevent soil and hazardous material from running off these large blighted areas into streams, ponds, lakes, and rivers. There is very little oversight of this destruction because politicians are totally in bed with industry on this. The films document the political corruption. There is a revolving door between politics and industry in which high level government officials leave government to work for industry. Political contributions buy support for the unsupportable.
Fox in Gasland Part II presents the case of a well-to-do Texan, who had just built his family a magnificent dream home, complete with ponds and a swimming pool. The Texan was offered money for the drilling rights on his property, but he refused. However, his neighbors did not refuse, therefore the family soon found themselves surrounded with gas wells. Gas leakage from the wells was such that his family was exposed to the toxic fumes no matter which direction the wind blew. His water well spewed methane along with polluted water. His family became ill. The documentary shows the children suffering from nosebleeds. Tests of the air revealed dozens of toxic gases. Had he accepted the drilling company offers, the money would not have begun to cover the medical expenses his family suffered. The drilling companies actually drilled under his home. They could do this because, in this country, few of us own the mineral rights under our property. He had to move away.
The documentaries claim that the fracking or, more likely, the disposal of drilling and fracking fluids causes earthquakes. These fluids are often sequestered by pumping them under extreme pressure deep into the earth, often near fault lines. I suspect, but it is not mentioned in the documentary, that these quakes may be a factor in the failure of many cement casings.
Both documentaries show in bleak detail how all across this country, thousands upon thousands of these wells have destroyed the once beautiful countryside, polluting the air and water, killing the wildlife, and driving people from land that they have lived on for generations. In Gasland Part II, Fox shows how fracking has now become a worldwide problem. Similar shale deposits can be found on every continent. He takes you to Australia where farmers show him their water well, which is polluted with natural gas. The farmer ignites his water well head, resulting in a fiery display like the Lillehammer Olympic Flame. The farmer points out that Australia is very dry, so farmers depend for their lives and livelihood on aquifers that are now being polluted forever.
Gasland interviews a Wyoming rancher whose water has been so polluted by the drilling that he does not know how his cattle can bear to drink it. He describes frequent fogs of brown gas leaking from wells, blanketing his home and herds. You may now be eating meat from cattle raised in this environment. Much of our country is being destroyed by fracking. Just the sight of dead wildlife, poisoned streams, sick children, burning wells, and government and industry mendacity and collusion will disgust you.
I have made recent trips around the Southwest and across the country. The scale of fracking going on is amazing. Motels in Texas and Louisiana are doubling their prices because drillers take up all of the rooms. After standing in line behind a dozen drillers at one motel in New Mexico, I was asked by the desk clerk what drilling company I was with. The documentaries show aerial shots of vast areas of drilling pads across the country. The drilling frenzy is out of hand, and control and oversight of it are out the window.
Water is becoming scarce throughout the world. Fracking requires trillions of gallons of water that then becomes totally unusable and hazardous. In California, the prime area for proposed fracking is the shale under the Central Valley, where water shortage is already a serious problem. The valley is where the bulk of this nation’s produce is grown. Imagine all of that produce becoming unfit to eat. If we do not stop plans to frack there, we will be totally fracked!