Fracking: Boom or Doom
Illustration by Kyle Fewell.
Ask someone like Jon Entine, a science writer for Ethical Corporation, to describe the sort of person who claims hydraulic fracturing presents a pollution nightmare in waiting, and you quickly find yourself pummeled with talk radio invective: "ideological blowhard," "leftist loony," and "upper-middle-class lefties."
But none apply to Fred Mayer.
When a reporter arrives at his 200-year-old farmhouse on a cloudy June day, one of the first things Mayer asks is: "Do you know who Glenn Beck is? You should really listen to him. Now that man knows what he's talking about."
The 62-year-old Vietnam vet's yard in Newark Valley, New York, is full of patriotic flags. His rotund body is covered in tattoos, with barbed wire wrapped around his thick arms and an Iron Cross on his left fist.
The first time he heard of fracking was in 2008. It's a natural gas drilling process in which millions of gallons of water—mixed with sand and more than 596 toxic chemicals—are pumped into shale formations 8,000 feet belowground, the pressure fracturing them to release the natural gas they hold inside.
Decades ago, Shell Oil attempted to drill on Mayer's property in hopes of retrieving the river of black crude that resides just under the rock formation. "They never were able to do it," he says. "They couldn't get through the rock, so they gave up."
Shell eventually sold its lease to Fortuna Energy. Mayer thought nothing of it until 2008, when his neighbors started getting leasing offers from gas companies that had a new way of drilling that could get through the thick layers of shale just fine. Only this time, they were in search of natural gas, often heralded as the greenest fossil fuel.
Mayer gave Fortuna a call, only to find that his father had leased their property for just $4 an acre. Since Dad had passed away, Mayer told Fortuna that the agreement was null and void. Fortuna countered with a new offer: $600 an acre. Mayer soon received a check for $58,200, with a promise of more to come.
But it wasn't long before Mayer received another surprise—this one less pleasant. One morning, he turned on his kitchen sink. Instead of water, the tap hissed with gas. Mayer grabbed his lighter, held it to the faucet, and watched it burst into flames.
Although Fortuna had yet to drill on his property, the company was already at work six miles to the west. Mayer called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to file a complaint in January 2009. His case was assigned to an investigator, though no one actually came out to investigate.
"[Our] staff concluded that the gas in Mr. Mayer's well was naturally occurring and that no investigation was warranted for several reasons," says Emily DeSantis, a department spokeswoman. Not only was Mayer's residence more than a mile away from the nearest drilling, DeSantis says, but also "naturally occurring methane is commonplace throughout the state."
Mayer knew better, of course. His water hadn't become flammable until Fortuna began drilling nearby. More than three years later, he can make every faucet in his house dance with flames. He can't drink from his own tap. Sometimes the gas pressure builds up so much that it blasts coffee cups from his hands while he does the dishes.
Still, Mayer was less upset by the contamination than he was about not making money from it. About the time he signed his lease, then-governor David Paterson watched as drilling devastated neighboring Pennsylvania, where thousands of contamination complaints have been filed. In one incident near Pittsburgh, toxic wastewater ended up in the Monongahela River, leaving 850,000 residents without drinkable water. So Paterson banned fracking in New York.
As Mayer sees it, his water is already contaminated, and he could use his 17 percent cut of Fortuna's drilling profits. According to Public Policy Polling, about half of southern New Yorkers agree and hope that Governor Andrew Cuomo will lift the ban so they can begin reaping the riches promised by companies like Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, Cabot Oil & Gas, and Schlumberger.
It doesn't seem to matter that in the past decade fracking has left behind a widening trail of health and environmental disasters. Or that research indicates the influx of money and jobs promised by these companies falls far short of their claims. New York landowners still whisper stories of overnight millionaires just over the border.
That's because people are desperate to flee the pressure of another disaster, the one created by the housing crash. The difference is that fracking could imperil more than pocketbooks. There's no shortage of scientists and public health officials who warn that large-scale contamination might leave millions of people without usable water.
Yet the natural gas industry has spent $747 million lobbying state and federal officials over the past decade, allowing it to continue drilling in 34 states. Few Americans are any richer. But a whole lot more have horror stories to tell.
Sharon Wilson is often dismissed as an anti-fracking loony. Range Resources, one of the largest fracking firms in the nation, has even accused her of manufacturing false evidence in a conspiracy to defame the company.
But get Wilson on the phone, and you'll hear the sweet, commonsense lilt of a Texas girl who just happens to have a blog full of links to disaster stories, some of which she has experienced firsthand.
In 1995, Wilson moved from Fort Worth to Wise County, where she purchased 42 acres of land. "I gave up a great deal to move to the country, where I thought my children would enjoy clean air and clean living," she says.
Soon after Wilson arrived, so did Mitchell Energy. The company's owner, George Mitchell, had long known that a gold mine of natural gas lay deep beneath the shale that surrounds Fort Worth. He was dead set on getting it out, though geologists told him it was a pipe dream.
Undaunted, Mitchell spent 18 years and millions of dollars—with financing from the U.S. Department of Energy—to prove them wrong. By 1998, his company had developed a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals that could break through shale.
The first wells sprouted in 2000. But the onslaught wouldn't begin until 2004, when the Bush administration ruled that fracking "posed no threat to drinking water."
Bush's scientists would later be discredited, of course. You didn't need a doctorate from MIT to know that pumping toxins into the ground presented some sort of danger.
The Bush administration seemed to know this as well. A year later, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed a new energy bill through Congress. It not only exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, but also allowed drillers like Halliburton to keep the ingredients of their toxic cocktails secret.
The industry was presented with a golden opportunity: It could now harvest the riches buried deep beneath the soil, while bearing no responsibility—or public scrutiny—for any damage it left behind.
By 2008, says Wilson, "You couldn't move without running into a well."
She remembers when the well that sits just a half mile from her home was first drilled. "I can remember waking up one night," she says. "I saw the lights of the rig shining into my house, the sound of the engines and the generators going. The next morning, I woke up, and the sky was just brown. It just stunk. It was awful."
Like her neighbors, Wilson received a knock on her door from a land man asking if she'd like to get rich by leasing her property. But unlike most of the folks in Wise, Wilson didn't jump. Not because she couldn't use the money, but because "my mother taught me that nothing in life is free."
Instead, she drove to the well pads to see them for herself. That's when she noticed huge pits of putrid-smelling liquid nearby. These were dumping ponds filled with toxic water that was supposed to evaporate into the atmosphere. But they were lined with plastic tarps that often tore, allowing cancer-causing chemicals—like benzene, methanol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, arsenic, barium, and lead—to leak into the groundwater. In large doses, they can be lethal. But even lesser exposure can cause birth defects.
Wilson began regularly writing about fracking on her blog, Bluedaze. In one post, she writes about a friend who witnessed a driver of a wastewater truck dumping his load into a pasture where cows were grazing. In another, she links to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article about Wise's 3,998 active wells—and its title for the most polluted air in Texas.
She writes of people who report that their children are passing out in the shower due to gas leaks in their water supply. Others discover their farm animals are losing hair or dying after drinking from contaminated streams.
Wilson chronicles spills into creeks, ponds, and rivers, as well as the bright orange flares that would light up the night sky, thanks to companies burning off "economically irrelevant" reserves. Then there are the fatalities here and there, usually workers killed by explosions.
Begging Wilson to post home videos of their flaming faucets and dying animals, people from around Texas and as far away as Colorado, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania began contacting her with horror stories of their own.
Steven Lipsky was among them. He was just another Texas homeowner with a flaming faucet. But he also had something else: confirmation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that fracking had left his water laced with benzene, capable of causing both cancer and birth defects. The danger had forced his family to evacuate their home.
After Wilson posted video of his combustible faucet, Lipsky sued Range Resources for poisoning his water. He also asked the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees environmental issues in the state, to back the feds' finding.
But Range Resources knew that if Lipsky won, thousands of homeowners would set upon the industry, seeking restitution for poisoned land. So it hired the best scientists money could buy—in this case, Harvard and MIT grads as well as Halliburton's experts. Then it took its case to a Railroad Commission already stacked in its favor.
As the Dallas Observer detailed, nearly every member hearing the case had a financial interest in Range or one of its subsidiaries. Even Ethical Corporation's Entine, who is critical of anti-fracking arguments, admits that "the Railroad Commission is totally corrupt."
Needless to say, it ruled that the EPA was wrong, asserting that the gas was naturally occurring. This caused the feds to backpedal as well.
In the end, Lipsky not only lost his case, but also Range countersued him, claiming that he was part of a conspiracy to defame the company by providing a "misleading" video and falsehoods to the press. Wilson was named as a co-conspirator.
"It's such bullshit," she says. "All [Lipsky] did is send me a video, and it was over a month after the EPA made their ruling. Like most of the blog, I'm just linking to stuff that's already out there. This is how insane and aggressive this company is. . . . Industry can go on and say never once has there been a case where it has been proven, blah, blah, blah. But on the ground, we know better. We know that when they frack, our water gets contaminated."
Where the science of fracking is concerned, engineer Tony Ingraffea and geologist Terry Engelder agree on almost everything except this: "Tony thinks fracking should stop, and I don't," says Engelder, the Penn State geologist credited with discovering the state's potential for fracking. "I believe that economic health has to come before environmental health is worked out. Tony is arguing for environmental health at any cost."
In 2006, Dominion Exploration and Production contacted Engelder and asked whether extracting natural gas from the Marcellus shale, which runs from Ohio to Maryland, would be worth its time. Engelder's calculations revealed that nearly 50 trillion cubic feet of fuel lay beneath the ground, making it the largest deposit in the country. "I kept looking at that number, thinking to myself, 'Merry Christmas, America,'" Engelder says.
But almost as soon as the fracking boom began in Pennsylvania, so did the disasters. The worst occurred in Dimock, a small town of 1,400 residents. In 2008, Cabot Oil & Gas began leasing land from residents. Even those who refused were told that gas would be extracted from under their land anyway, because Pennsylvania law allowed for drillers to capture gas from nearby properties.
Soon, residents complained that their water had turned brown. Nearby creeks ran bright red with contaminants. Families reported that their children were passing out in the shower. Livestock was dying.
Making its way into streams and killing off fish, nearly 8,000 gallons of Halliburton-made "fracking fluid" leaked from faulty supply pipes.
Although Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection fined Cabot $360,000 for contaminating Dimock's water and failing to fix leaks, the federal EPA ruled in May that Dimock's drinking water was safe. The state, meanwhile, continues to insist that fracking isn't hazardous. "There has never been any evidence of fracking ever causing direct contamination of fresh groundwater in Pennsylvania or anywhere else," the DEP's Scott Perry once announced.
But while environmental regulators continue to see no evil, Cornell University engineer Tony Ingraffea is just as vigorous in warning of the dangers. "Four years later, the industry is still trying to figure out what to do with their crap," he says. "Bad things happened. And bad things continue to happen."
His biggest beef is with the industry's misinformation campaign. Despite all evidence to the contrary, gas companies claim that it's impossible for fracking fluid to come in contact with drinking water.
"They are simply telling downright lies because they think people are stupid, but this is really street-smart stuff," he says.
One of Ingraffea's studies debunked the natural gas industry's claims of being green. Because fracking wells and holding tanks leak up to a trillion cubic feet of methane gas into the atmosphere every year, their greenhouse effects can prove to be even more polluting than burning coal.
The industry responded as it usually does—by paying handsomely to have his findings refuted.
The American Clean Skies Foundation funded one major study by MIT, "The Future of Natural Gas." The chairman of that group? None other than Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, the second-largest producer of natural gas.
Ingraffea sees it as part of a pattern in which the industry buys off the country's most prestigious universities, "like MIT, to do pseudoscience."
Meanwhile, the Natural Gas Alliance, an industry lobbying group, shelled out $80 million to Hill+Knowlton Strategies, the same PR firm used by Big Tobacco to argue there was no link between smoking and cancer.
"The whole goal is to put a little seed of doubt in people's minds," Ingraffea says. "And for those who believe that they can get rich from leasing their land, there is a willing suspension of disbelief. But the real question is: How many bad things can go wrong right in front of your eyes before you finally accept the truth that this stuff is nasty and extremely dangerous?"
While the gas industry is busy paying scientists and politicians to downplay the risks of fracking, it's also greatly exaggerating its economic potential.
Like most opponents, Deborah Rogers didn't pay much attention to the boom until Chesapeake was about to drill a well just 100 feet from her property. After working in finance for years, she quit her job in 2003 to open an artisanal cheese-making operation on land she'd inherited in Fort Worth.
Instead of signing away her property to one of the many land men knocking on her door, she decided to attend a Chamber of Commerce luncheon where Chesapeake CEO McClendon boasted of the economic benefits of fracking. "So I went home and looked into it and discovered that some of these companies had enormous amounts of debt," Rogers says. "It was more likely that they were drilling to meet debt service rather than for profitability."
Rogers describes fracking as a "drilling treadmill" based solely on hype. As soon as a geologist like Engelder reports a massive reserve, the industry immediately hypes what they call "a play," with each advertised as bigger and better than the last, from the Barnett shale in Texas to the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania.
Gas companies quickly lease land and begin drilling at incredible rates of production. In the first year, everything looks great. But production soon drops as thousands of wells dry up, sometimes within 12 months.
"Only 20 percent of wells drilled will actually make money," Rogers says. "Eighty percent can easily be uneconomic. That is a whole lot of land used up in a search for 20 percent of the wells that will make money. Eighty-five percent of wells are abandoned in the first five years. And seven years is the average life of a well, rather than the 30 promised by industry."
While the money quickly stops, Bush, Cheney, and Congress made sure that the industry has no responsibility for cleaning up the pollution they leave behind, which will plague residents for years to come. The insurance industry understands the threat. Some of the biggest carriers, like Nationwide, won't even offer fracking coverage to homeowners.
Still, the industry uses its initial figures to sell drilling as a long-term gold rush. Not only do they overestimate earnings to landowners, but also they are able to borrow huge sums of money against these exaggerated estimates.
"After a decade of fracking, we're beginning to be able to show that, without a doubt, this was simply a very well-orchestrated public relations campaign," Rogers says. "There is gas there, but is there as much as they said? No. Are we gonna see the economic stability they promised? The answer is no."
Further, the frenzy has flooded the natural gas market, where gas prices are at an all-time low thanks to overproduction.
In the end, Rogers says that the money these wells actually produce isn't enough to offset the cost of land rendered worthless thanks to contamination. In essence, the industry is creating thousands of mini Superfund sites, leaving someone else to deal with the ruin.
"Fracking is exempt under the Energy Act," Rogers says. "Now, people have no recourse if they contaminate your aquifer or if they contaminate your air. They don't have to pay for it, and they don't have to use pollution-control devices that other industries have to use. They've basically been given a free ride by the federal government."
Rogers isn't the only person arguing that fracking isn't the economic savior promised by the industry. Recent studies by Penn State and Ohio State researchers show that the industry's boasts of prosperity have been grossly exaggerated.
Penn State found that half the land being drilled is owned by people from outside the state. Moreover, half the employees of fracking companies are also imported from elsewhere. "This would imply that a large portion of the economic benefits immediately leaves the communities being impacted by drilling," says professor Timothy Kelsey.
Worse, Pennsylvania has opted not to tax fracking ventures, buying the industry's claim that the state is the most expensive area to drill, and a tax could make fracking economically unfeasible. As a result, the state has lost more than $300 million in potential revenue—while simultaneously slashing funding for everything from education to hospital trauma centers.
Critics note that Governor Tom Corbett has received more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the gas industry. Rogers says the same has been true in Texas and every other state where fracking has appeared.
"We've been experiencing the shale gas boom since 2005, and we are in horrible shape economically," she says. "Shale gas was supposed to be this economic powerhouse for the next 40 years, they said. It didn't even work out in the past seven. And it's the same story in every other state. Unfortunately, that's just how the game is played."
If you don't live in Dimock, Pennsylvania, or Wise County, Texas, it's easy to ignore the fallout. But few parts of America remain untouched.
They aren't drilling in Wisconsin or Minnesota, yet the industry's effects are certainly being felt. Both offer rich supplies of fine sand called silica, used in fracking. In the past four years, sand mining in both states has doubled—along with the rates of respiratory problems associated with it. At least nine Minnesota cities have enacted moratoriums on mining because treatment plants use toxic chemicals and present a threat to water supplies.
The U.S. Geological Survey further thinks that an uncharacteristic surge of earthquakes throughout the Midwest is "almost certainly" related to gas companies disposing wastewater into deep-injection wells.
In 2008, there were just 29 earthquakes in the Midwest. Three years later, after fracking became widespread, the figure had more than quadrupled to 134. Most of them were clustered close to wells.
After a series of earthquakes occurred in Youngstown, Ohio, earlier this year, the state banned gas companies from using deep-injection wells for water disposal.
The problem is that homes outside of natural earthquake areas aren't built to withstand even the smallest of tremors. Nor do insurers offer earthquake coverage in these regions.
Even the Pacific West isn't immune. Since 1924, the Baldwin Hills oil field in Los Angeles has been a source of tension between residents and the Plains Exploration and Production Company, which runs the 1,000-acre plot. Last year, the company settled a class-action lawsuit filed by neighbors who claimed that wells contaminated their air and increased the rate of earthquakes.
Now the company, which has largely relied on conventional drilling techniques, plans to frack in the same area. California doesn't regulate or track fracking, giving gas companies free rein to do as they please.
Although fracking wreaks havoc wherever the industry goes, America's politicians have decided to look the other way. On June 12, an anonymous source in New York governor Andrew Cuomo's administration told The New York Times that Cuomo was set to lift the ban in his state, one of the final fracking battlegrounds in the country. (Cuomo's office didn't respond to interview requests.)
Less than an hour south of the border, near the town of Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, former residents of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park can be found camping at the edge of Route 220 while holding signs that read "Save Riverdale!" and "No Fracking!"
In February, they learned that Richard Leonard, who owns the Riverdale land, had sold it to Aqua America, which supplies fracking companies with water. Residents were ordered to vacate the park by the end of May. Some had lived there for more than 30 years.
In a joint venture with Range Resources, Aqua America plans to spend $12 million turning the land into a pump station, taking 3 million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna River. Residents have written and called the company, but have yet to receive a single response. The only contact they had came when a Range security guard showed up to take photos of them setting up camp outside the trailer park.
Nor has the state been any more receptive. Aqua America just happens to be owned by Nicholas DeBenedictis, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
"We just want it all to stop," resident Gerlinda Trimble says. Riverdale is located in Lycoming County, home to more than 667 wells, which have been cited for environmental violations 474 times. One toxic spill dumped 13,000 gallons of fracking fluid into a stream. "It's enough now. They've poisoned our land, and now they're taking our homes."
When told that Cuomo might lift the moratorium in New York, Trimble simply shakes her head. "I'll pray for them," she says.
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