|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 177 April 2014
The devastating effects of fracking
Governments across the world are declaring triumphantly that oil and gas hydraulic fracking is the solution to the capitalist economy’s rapacious energy needs. Yet as each month goes by new studies emerge in the United States of how this industry is poisoning water supplies and the air that we breathe. Fracking took off in the US during 2007-08 with little or no government oversight of the industry. This was due to the corrupt links between corporate politicians who make up Congress and the oil and gas industry lobby.
Under president George W Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney, who had close links to the oil and gas industry, hydraulic fracking won exemptions from most environmental regulations. In 2005, Congress passed what has become known as the ‘Halliburton loophole’ which allows companies to escape a host of environmental laws. On top of this, companies are protected by regulators who allow them to keep the identity of certain fracking chemicals hidden, on the grounds that they are trade secrets. Oil and gas companies report certain chemicals as ‘lubricants’, ‘surfactants’, or simply as ‘mixtures’. Government regulators who are supposed to be protecting the public do not have a clue as to what toxic poison is being used and churned out into the air and water supplies.
Scientists from the University of Missouri revealed that over 700 different chemicals are used by the fracking industry. Samples of contaminated river water from areas close to fracking sites have found that these chemicals disrupt the normal functioning of the endocrine system and can lead to cancer, infertility and birth defects. According to Dr Sandra Stenigraber, of Ithaca College, New York, and science advisor to Breast Cancer Action, there have been over 1,000 different cases of water contamination near fracking sites.
In many areas across the US fracking has led to high levels of arsenic and other toxic heavy metals in ground water near drilling sites. Researchers from the University of Texas last year found levels of arsenic
18 times higher than in areas without fracking. Meanwhile, scientists at Duke University, North Carolina, have found high levels of methane, propane and ethane in ground water samples near fracking sites in northern Pennsylvania, and levels of radium 200 times above normal.
If that was not bad enough, in some areas fracking waste water is highly radioactive. In New York state, scientists from the Department of Environmental Conservation analysed 13 samples of waste water and found "levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink".
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists are worried about the threat to public health from the huge amounts of fracking waste water. Sewage treatment plants are incapable of removing radioactive materials from waste water which is then discharged into rivers from which drinking water is taken. On average, only 30%-50% of the fracking fluid is recovered. The rest is left in the ground. In some areas waste water is left in open-air pits to evaporate into the atmosphere. Harmful volatile organic compounds are released into the air creating acid rain and ground level ozone.
Numerous studies have shown how fracking chemicals can contaminate water supplies. There have been transport spills before and after gas drilling, the fracturing process itself, disposal of waste water and failure of gas well casings, and seepage from abandoned gas wells. Chemical fluids from gas fracking can migrate underground to contaminate water tables.
Fracking not only poisons water supplies, it also causes a huge amount of air pollution. All over America people are being poisoned by the toxic chemicals released by the industry. The EPA released a damning report in February 2013 which admitted that there is no systematic air-quality monitoring of the emissions from the fracking industry, which emits "large amounts of harmful pollutants that impact air quality on local, regional, and global levels".
The Center For Biological Diversity in California released a report in 2013 of its investigation into air pollution caused by fracking in the Los Angeles basin. It found that oil companies had used twelve ‘air-toxic’ chemicals, like crystalline silica and hydrochloric acid, on over 300 occasions. Air-toxic chemicals are considered extremely dangerous as they can cause cancer, harm the heart, and damage the lungs and eyes.
Environmental group Earthworks investigated air pollution in the Eagle Ford area of Texas. Its report noted how regulators discovered pollution so dangerous they evacuated themselves from the area. Yet they took no action to warn about the dangerous level of air pollutants, or to protect residents, a growing number of whom are suffering adverse health effects. (Reckless Endangerment while Fracking the Eagle Ford, September 2013, www.earthworksaction.org)
The fracking industry in the US resembles one vast ponzi scheme that is as reckless as it is criminal. Wyoming, for example, has thousands of fracking wells. It has recently come to light how companies that once operated fracking wells have disappeared, abandoning the wells they made huge profits from. Apparently, over 1,200 wells have been abandoned.
Many of the companies that operated these wells are seeking bankruptcy, and are ‘unable’ to pay the cost of cleaning up the land they leased. Many farmers are complaining to state officials that their land has been left in a toxic state. State senator John J Hines (Republican) is seeking public money to clean up the 40 fracking wells on his land abandoned by Patriot Resource Company.
Max Keiser, a financial commentator, calls fracking ‘suicide economics’. As he points out, many fracking companies sign contracts with farmers to lease their land knowing full well that they will not be spending any money to clean up the toxic mess they will have created. He describes a ‘twelve to 36-month scam’ by energy companies out to make a 5% return on their investment. Companies borrow money at zero per cent to pay for fracking rigs, then make huge profits during the life of the fracking well. Once it is exhausted, they declare bankruptcy to avoid any clean-up costs, leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions.
Not surprisingly, there is a growing grassroots opposition movement. Over 400 US counties have passed resolutions banning fracking operations. In Pennsylvania, local people have delivered a 100,000-strong petition to Republican governor Tom Corbett calling for a halt to fracking operations in the state. Last year, 650,000 people sent messages to the Obama administration calling for a ban on fracking on public lands.
On 28 February, Los Angeles city council voted to support a moratorium on fracking and other dangerous drilling, until the city decides that it does not pose a danger to the safety of residents or their drinking water. This is a big victory for the people of LA who have faced oil and gas regulators dragging their feet on enforcing existing environmental rules. More than 200,000 petitions have been signed by Californians urging governor Jerry Brown (Democrat) to ban fracking in the state.
The fracking industry is releasing a toxic time-bomb whose full impact may not be felt for many years to come. We still have time to stop this in Britain, where there is a growing movement linking environmentalists and local residents against the energy companies. Protests are springing up all over the country. At Barton Moss, Salford, I Gas is conducting exploratory drilling for gas. The daily protests have slowed down the drilling which is now behind schedule.
As the fracking industry spreads its destructive tentacles across the globe, ordinary people must fight back against the big oil and gas companies that would poison millions of people and destroy local environments, all in the pursuit of a quick buck. In the next decade, thousands of fracking wells will be drilled all over Britain unless mass opposition develops. The labour and trade union movement must throw its resources and organising energies into opposing fracking, which is another example of how the capitalist system is a grave threat to health and the environment.
Dylan and Jo Murphy