In the end, the only sound argument in support of fracking—injection of millions of gallons of toxic chemical laced water into shale deposits to release the methane trapped within it—is the economic argument. The argument is of course valid only as far as it goes though, and stops short at the question of just how much damage is acceptable for the sake of the jobs, the royalties paid to land owners, and the profits reaped by the businesses involved.
The argument is a cynical charlatan’s argument. An article in Slate, “‘They’re the Birthers of Fracking.'” A Conversation with Josh Fox,” that was posted to the FrackNation Facebook page in an ad hominem attack on Josh Fox, the producer of the award winning documentary, Gasland, led to a variant of the argument by another proponent of fracking. The comment proffered a rhetorical argument, “This is about risk management vs. Risk avoidance,” which suggests that the risk can be eliminated. Another comment stated that the technology in the industry was state of the art, suggesting there was no risk.
While the argument for finding agreement based on doing what is necessary to overcome the risk is a good rhetorical argument, it overlooks the fact that the only way to manage the risk is to avoid it in this instance. The technology for extracting the gas may be state of the art, but the safeguards are not. Nor does it seem likely that even technological developments that avert the risk is possible.
The fact is that five percent of well casings fail within the first year, and over 50 percent fail after 30 years. Also, wells drilled near abandoned wells can cause the methane to jet out of the abandoned well. Gas drilling thus vents huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere—and methane is 105 times as damaging a GHG as CO2.
In addition to the chemicals, shale gas contains high levels of radon gas, and the waste water contains dissolved radium peroxide. The gas then will cause an increase in lung cancer deaths, because radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Governments from local to state level across the country have laws to protect us from second-hand smoke, but none to protect us from the radon in gas.
While regulation that would require storage of the gas until the radon has decayed, a time-frame of 3.8 days, can mitigate the harm done, the 1400 year half-life of radium means contamination will be there virtually forever. In addition to the potential for ongoing harm to be done, much environmental damage has already been done.
Waste water was used for deicing roadways in upstate New York and elsewhere until someone realized the water also contained radioactive material in 2011. While it is no longer used for deicing, a failed casing will cause some of the 10% of fracking fluid that is not recovered to be forced through and into the aquifer, and all the way to the surface where it can become airborne.
Accidents happen too, and they are not rare, isolated incidents. Spills occur, over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, and again for an array of reasons—and often enough repeatedly by the same drilling company. Just as are the evil hordes spoken of in Revelations legion, so too are the incidents. But just the number of incidents is only part of the concern.
A recent accident caused thousands of gallons to jet out of the wellhead. Most of it was contained by the pit around the well, and the gas company removed the contaminated soil to a depth of 18 inches. The potential danger in this is that some of the soil became airborne during the excavation, and followed the airborne atomized waste water created by the accident downwind. Of course, the waste water seeped much further into the soil than 18 inches, but replacing the overburden with 18 inches of uncontaminated soil is considered safe remediation. There is of course no way to measure the contaminated soil that became airborne during transport to the dump facility.
The most difficult thing to do will be to safely regulate disposal of the waste water. State after state now bans disposal in municipal treatment facilities, due both to the level of bromides and radiological contaminants in the waste water. But that is only since 2011, so a lot of damage has already been done.
What they do now is truck the millions of gallons of waste water from each well to injection wells, where it is pumped at high pressure deep into the ground. This has proven to create new problems with frightening potential for disaster. The wells are causing earthquakes from Dallas, Texas, to Columbus, Ohio.
The potential disaster related to these earthquakes lies in the fact that they are displacements of fault lines, and the pressurized injection could hasten the migration of the contaminated water into nearby aquifers. While we know that fracking at the well site has at least the potential to cause fairly rapid contamination of an aquifer, the rate at which the contaminated waste water migrates through fissures and soils is so slow that it could be decades before measurable levels of wide-spread contamination even become detectable.
Even supposing that the issues related to casing failures—and even failures due to flawed materials and human error in joining of the tubing—can be resolved, disposal of the waste water will have another dimension to it that likely cannot be resolved. It is and has been dumped into abandoned coal mines, and seeped into waterways. It has, and will continue to be dumped illegally into storm drains. Disposal is expensive, and no criminal expects to be caught. But more critically, the fines are often not commensurate with the violation.
Stated bluntly, whether state or federal, there is little will on the part of government to effectively regulate the industry. Because the laws and those who administer them are either toothless or subverted and subordinated to political and financial considerations, it can actually be less costly to “accidentally” allow impound pits to spill than to ship and pay for it to be disposed of in injection wells. One operator had five such accidents, and was fined only $38,000, in example.
Among the tragedies that will affect those now enjoying the economic boom of fracking is the ephemeral nature of the business. Once the wells are in, the jobs and money spent by those who get work in the fracking fields will move down the road to the next community. Well depletion and other factors assure that only land owners receiving payment for mineral rights, and the gas companies and their investors will realize a sustainable economic boom. Unlike the ghost towns left in the wake of mining in the Southwest, the communities will likely continue to get by on the agricultural business that sustained them before fracking, but the boom days will be only distant memories for the merchants who prospered while the roughnecks were busy putting in the wells.
So, let’s ask again. How much water must be contaminated and rendered unusable for thousands of generations to come? How many lives must be put at risk? And are the profits to the dozens of oil and gas companies, royalties paid to thousands of land owners, and the wages paid to the hundreds of thousand people working on the wells worth the sacrifice made by millions? If you answered yes, even the word charlatan fails to describe the kind of scoundrel you are.