Thursday, August 1, 2013

No frackin' way

Like most people, when I first heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has become commonly known, I was curious and suspicious. 

In order to rescue the United States from our dependence on foreign 'dirty' oil, we were going to free the U.S. from the yoke of energy oppression using the 100 year supply of 'clean' natural gas under our feet! Woo hoo!

Now, here was something that everyone could get behind! I mean, who doesn't love a 100 year source of clean domestic energy?

However, the more I read about this technology and the more it has made its presence known in the news, the more horrified I have become about its immense negative environmental impact. 

Interestingly, I also started hearing complaints about new liquid natural gas terminals being planned (we already have 110 in use) to export all this gas overseas. These facilities have a nasty tendency to explode into massive fireballs, so understandibly, they are not popular additions to many coastal communities. I'll explain the importance of this interest in new facilities later.

So, how does fracking work? 

A well head is drilled (and it takes a LOT of well heads to extract the natural gas trapped in the rock bed) and large amounts of water (1- 8 millions gallons per well) laced with 20 to 40,000 gallons of heavy metals and chemicals, are injected under intense pressure until the shale bed 'fractures', allowing the trapped methane to be released and collected. Chemicals used during the process include lovelies like lead, uranium, mercury, radium, ethylene glycol (think radiator fluid/antifreeze), hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde.

Currently, there are over 500,000 active fracking wells in operation, which are typically fracked ten times or more. Doing some simple math, this conservatively equals about more than 50 TRILLION gallons of water and over 200 billion gallons of chemicals introduced into the ground.

Oh yes...and no more than 50% of the water introduced during fracking is actually recovered from each well. This means that up to 70% of the water and chemicals introduced in fracking are left in the ground. Hmmmm.

Water that is removed is often left in open pits where volatile organic compounds are released into the atmosphere. These are organic compounds that aerosolize and have been linked to many health problems. 

Interestingly, fracking companies are not required to release an exact list of what compounds they use as part of the fracking process. They are also exempt from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Still feeling good about our new energy policy and all this 'clean' energy?

Okay, well surely the government is watching these guys and making sure they don't mess up, right? Well...actually...the responsibility for policing the fracking companies is primarily in the hands of the states, not the feds. 

And since more recent shake-ups at the EPA as fracking has fallen into the loving arms of our current administration, federal oversight has fallen off even more.

Okay, so its a dirty polluting technology but surely there are fail-safes in to prevent accidents, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Not surprisingly, quite a bit!

One of the first problems is casing failure. Lining each well-head is a metal liner surrounded by a cement casing that is meant to prevent any of the good or bad stuff going in or out of the well from leaking into the surrounding ground. 

Sounds pretty sturdy huh? Well, with an accepted fail rate of 5% per year, the casing on these wells can be expected to fail, and boy do they ever, 50% within the first ten years. This also means that 5% will fail essentially immediately, within the first year of use.

When they fail, some of that methane and the unspecified toxic chemicals under intense pressure are released into the ground water and voila - you have an environment disaster!

'Honey, why is the hose on fire?' 

So suddenly, homes, cities, and farms that use well water for their very existence, have a contaminated water source that is unusable. The whole while, the fracking companies deny culpability and the EPA goes along, hand-in-hand, in denying the dangers, quietly telling people that they probably shouldn't drink that water, 'off the record'.

Now, anyone who lives off well-water is very much aware of how important their aquifer is and also how vulnerable it is. The city of Frederick and my whole rural community is dependent on the same water table/aquifer and we all know that when one person is irresponsible or reckless, we can all suffer.

We could not farm our land without our clean, pure ground water - it is a precious resource. We test our water every year looking for chemicals like pesticides and coliforms, enteric contamination from fecal matter.

Once polluted, there is no way to repair the damage.

Now those of you living in urban areas with access to municipal water may say, 'well this doesn't really affect me'...but does it? 

There are huge sections of the U.S. where many thousands of fracking wells are planned and many of them are in areas of the country where much of our food is grown, or where water is a scarce commodity.

Other important environmental considerations:

1. Huge amounts of energy, roads and other infrastructure needed to build and transport the water and other materials used for fracking.

2. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas some 40 times more potent than CO2. It is estimated that at least 5 - 10 % of the methane captured during fracking leaks into atmosphere. Given its affect as a powerful greenhouse gas 40 times more potent than CO2, that's a lot of global warming and the 'clean' part of the technology goes out the window.

3. Release of methane and VOC's into the atmosphere near fracking sites affecting local air quality, including disulfidesbenzenexylenes and naphthalene.

4. Earthquakes - there is good evidence that fracking has precipitated increased earthquake activity in the American Midwest and Europe. Current fracking operations are underway overlying the San Andreas Fault and many more are planned for the Central Valley of California, again overlying the fault and the so-called bread basket of America.

5. Surface water contamination from runoff and spills related to fracking operation.

Its also important to bear in mind that tens, if not hundreds of thousands more wells are planned over the next decade all across the United States, so this is a problem that will be magnified exponentially and will be affecting millions of people.

Now, two premises of this 'clean' energy bonanza that our politicians have been selling us, is that there is a 100 year supply of natural gas and that this will help control/bring down our energy costs. So let's look at this idea, shall we?

The 100 year estimate of our reserves assumes that ALL areas where suitable shale formations exist can be accessed and sucked dry.

The other consideration is how much industry interest in expanding America's liquid natural gas export capacity there is.

While increasing production of natural gas in the U.S. would definitely lower prices, this assumes that the gas produced would stay in the U.S. 

Considering that prices for natural gas in Europe and Asia are 4 or 5 times higher than they are here, why would these producers choose to sell their products here in the U.S.? Out of the goodness of their corporate hearts?

Let's consider an alternative to this ridiculous and never-ending reliance on dirty fossil fuels - renewable energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, wave and so on. This seems like a no-brainer to me?

Being a child of the 70's, I remember the oil embargos. You could argue that its has been one ongoing crisis since that time because of our dependence on fossil fuels.

Why not aggressively switch to a new renewable and sustainable energy source, create a strong and high tech renewable energy industry in the U.S. (i.e. jobs), and end our dependence on polluting energy sources for once and for all!

We at Whitmore Farm, believe in maintaining balance and sustainability in every aspect of our lives. We switched over to 100% renewable energy about 4 years ago.

Currently, 50% of our energy usage is produced via the photovolteic system installed on our barn roof a year ago. Since that time, we have captured 35 Kwh of solar energy, saved over $5000 in energy costs, and offset 55,000 lbs of carbon emmissions. 

The rest of our energy usage is bought as wind energy through our local utility company. 

Emmitsburg is also the site of the largest solar installation in the State of Maryland, thanks to an agreement between Mount Saint Mary's University and Constellation Energy. None of this would have happened if the State of Maryland hadn't required a certain percentage of each utility company's energy production to come from renewable sources.

Currently, with the lower cost of photovolteic panels, renewable technology has become comparable and competative to fossil fuels in terms of costs.

While this issue may seem unrelated to my little farm in Maryland (the state currently has a moratorium on fracking) there appears to be a legitimite risk that things may change.

Two years ago, in response to concerns about the safety of fracking and the disasterous problems that have plagued the technology in neighboring Pennsylvania, Gov. Martin O'Malley created the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

The commission charged the state Department of the Environment and DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to conduct studies looking into the affects of fracking on the environment.

However, recently the commission begain drafting craft rules on fracking for the state and Governor O'Malley hired John Quigley, former secretary of the Pa Department of Conservation and Natural resources to help in the process. 

Et Voila:

So in the end, I now see this as a major and the latest threat to my little farm and to agriculture all across the country.

If you'd like to know if there are any fracking sites in your area, here is a search tool you can use to check:

In the meantime, I will continue to say 'no' to fracking and 'yes' to renewable energy!

1 comment:

  1. Researchers have found the ill effects of hydraulic fracturing and proven that hydraulic fracturing process contaminates ground water but this process causes earthquakes is still under research.

    Bruce Hammerson

    Hydraulic Hammers