Dirty water cannot be washed - African proverb

If you had a choice between filling your car of the future with natural gas (now being promoted as a viable, green, clean, future alternative to oil), or quenching your thirst with unpolluted water which would you choose? This is not a hypothetical question. If the natural gas lobby continues to have its way, natural gas - the supposed safe, ecologically friendly fuel source - may do some serious damage to the earth's water.

In 2002 advances in horizontal drilling (a technology invented by Halliburton in 1949), drastically reduced the costs previously required to extract natural gas from rock and shale located miles deep within the earth. Although the industry asserts that the process is safe, does the following industry summary from slide 65 of a January 17, 2008 Halliburton power point presentation entitled A Historic Perspective of Hydraulic Fracturing inspire confidence?
After 60 years of hydraulic fracturing research technology and experience, we can safely say that we know about hydraulically created fractures

  • How Deeply They Penetrate
  • Their Vertical Extents
  • Their Symmetries About the Wellbore
  • Whether They are Planar or Multistranded
  • Their geometries at the Perimeter
  • Which Directions They Go
  • What Their Conductivities are
Other than that, we've got it down pat!

But they still make a lot of money

And does this promotional video distributed by Baker Hughes, a competitor of Halliburton, which presents as an advantage of its technology the need for fewer highly trained technicians to be on site allay concerns about industry commitments to the safety of the general public?

Horizontal drilling involves numerous lateral wells which branch off from a main shaft drilled up to 10 miles into the earth. Each well is then injected with several millions of gallons of water and sand under high pressure to create fissures that fracture or "frack" the rock in which the gas is trapped. Unfortunately, while the process does liberate gas from the rock it is trapped within, it also infuses the millions of gallons of water that free it with the ingredients of a chemical cocktail which energy companies insist is safe while refusing to release data concerning its contents. The secrecy, they say, is necessary to protect company proprietary rights to the formula from being copied by competitors, not to cover up any health risks to the public.

Lending credibility to the industry's reassurances is a 2004 EPA study whose conclusion ruled that the fluids used in the fracking process are without risk. However, the concerted efforts of then Vice President Dick Cheney and energy lobbyists to weaken environmental regulations in the 2005 Energy Bill the following year does raise some red flags.

If the EPA's 2004 ruling was accurate, why did Dick Cheney and energy lobbyists feel the need to push through amendments to the 2005 Energy Bill that gave energy companies exemptions from The Clean Air Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, The National Environmental Policy Act, Comprehensive Environmental Recovery, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and The Toxic Release Inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act?

Was there something that Cheney and the lobbyists knew that they wanted to keep hidden from the rest of us?

In October 2004, Wes Wilson, an environmental engineer and 30 year employee of the EPA who requested whistleblower protection, submitted an 18 page document to members of Congress and the EPA's Inspector General which claimed that the study was inaccurate, that the fluids posed health risks, and that the report was written by a panel linked to the industry that included an employee of Halliburton.

The following is an excerpt from the transcript of an October 2004 segment from the NPR Living on Earth Series, entitled "The Costs Of Fracking."

Wes Wilson is the whistleblower involved in 2004 EPA study who has criticized the report as being scientifically unsound.

Tom Hamberger is one of the LA Times reporters who uncovered this story.
Curwood: Now, the EPA study concluded that fracking poses no threat to drinking water and therefore it doesn't have to be regulated under federal drinking water laws. But, Wes Wilson, you filed a statement under whistleblower protection that says that the study was scientifically unsound. This puts you in a somewhat vulnerable spot, I'd guess right now. Why did you decide to take this action?

Wilson: Well, I did this for three reasons. First, EPA did not follow its own science policy, which required EPA to obtain water quality data in each one of these basins to determine whether the water, the groundwater, remained safe for drinking. Second, EPA's decisions are not consistent with the law, they're not consistent with the Safe Drinking Water Act. And third, EPA relied upon a peer-review panel which itself had conflicts of interest.

Curwood: Let's look at those one at a time. First, the peer-review panel. What was the problem there?

WIilson: Well, EPA didn't follow its own science policy. This policy that EPA has is that reviewers should be free of real or even perceived conflicts of interest. Yet five of these seven-member panels appear to have a conflict of interest. They include an engineer who worked at Halliburton; a manager who worked at the Gas Technology Institute, an organization of the industry; an engineer of BP Amoco; and two professors who had worked for the oil and gas industry. The sixth member was a state regulator who worked for Amoco in the past, and the seventh member worked at the Department of Energy's Sandia Lab. Well, in my view, this is not a peer-review. This is simply, I think, a thin veneer cover over what is a scientifically unsound study, while the scientific process of peer review was abandoned.

Curwood: Seems to me it would be simple enough just simply to test the water. Why did the EPA choose not to test the water?

WIilson: Well, that was one of my first reasons for objecting. EPA has no data on the amount of fluids injected, what remains in the ground, whether the groundwater will be unusable to drink, or what those health risks are. Yet EPA reached this unsupportable and scientifically unsound conclusion that hydraulic fracturing of coal bed methane poses little or no threat to drinking water supply.

Curwood: Tom Hamberger, you've been working on this case for a while. What's your sense of what the risk might be to the public?

Hamberger: Well, fracturing generally occurs safely in most cases. It's been widely used and is widely used without incident in most cases. However, we ran across in Alabama, and in numerous other states, accounts that fracturing may, in some cases, have inadvertently fouled drinking water supplies. We did talk with some of the Alabama plaintiffs who brought suit against EPA saying this must be regulated. And while their case was not proven because there wasn't a timely investigation of their claims, what they described was quite dramatic. Which is, almost immediately after wells near their property were fractured, they turned on their taps at home and discovered literally carbonated water coming out. It was bubbling and it contained small specks that looked like maybe coal specks, and also a gelatinous fluid that appeared, one of them said--if you'll forgive me for saying it on air - it seemed just like snot but it was running all through the water. Unfortunately, there were not scientific tests, lab results available to show exactly what was in this stuff. But I can tell you that the residents of Alabama that we talked with feel very strongly that it was fracturing that led to this strange results when they turned on their taps.

Curwood: And I guess the number one lesson in any investigative reporting is to follow the money. So I'm wondering, what kind of money trail did you find in this story?

Hamberger: Well, that's the old investigative reporter's moniker, you got it. And what we wanted to see, indeed, was this technique important to Halliburton? And we found the technique was pioneered by Halliburton. The first test of hydraulic fracturing commercially was done by Halliburton in about 1949. And we learned subsequently that three companies dominated the business worldwide, and that for Halliburton the hydraulic fracturing business brings in about $1.5 billion annually - about a fifth of its energy-related revenues.
Yet, despite the concerns raised in the 2004 EPA Report, The 2005 Energy Bill was passed by an overwhelming majority.
On August 8, 2005, President Bush signed into the law the energy bill; on July 28, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 275 to 156 to approve the energy bill; and on July 29, the U.S. Senate voted 74 to 26 to approve the energy bill which was in large part written by the industry.
Sixteen companies spent $70 million lobbying Congress and $15 million in donations given to federal candidates - most of it going to Republican politicians. PublicCitizen identifies these companies as:
Anadarko, BP, Burlington Resources, ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, Dominion Resources, EOG Resources, Evergreen Resources, Halliburton, Marathon Oil, Oxbow (Gunnison Energy), Tom Brown, Western Gas Resources, Williams Cos and XTO.
The implications of passage of these amendments on the environment is evident in the following analysis of the effects the exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act would have on the integrity of the water supply.
Oil and Gas Regulatory Rollbacks

Section 322 exempts from the Safe Drinking Water Act a coalbed methane drilling technique called "hydraulic fracturing," a potential polluter of underground drinking water. One of the largest companies employing this technique is Halliburton, for which Vice President Richard Cheney acted as chief executive officer in the 1990s.

This exemption would kill lawsuits by Western ranchers who say that drilling for methane gas pollutes groundwater by injecting contaminated fluids underground
The victory for the energy companies proved to be disastrous for those affected by it. Since publicizing the ingredients in proprietary leases is not mandated by law, the public has had no recourse for mandating that energy companies release the contents of their fracking fluids.

Despite this lack of transparency TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange) has compiled an incomplete list of the names of products and their chemicals indirectly from industry Material Safety Sheets, state Emergency Planning and Community-Right-To-Know, (EPCRA), Tier II Reports, Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Assessment Statement disclosures, rule-making documents and accident and spill reports which can be viewed here

As more communities experienced adverse effects from horizontal drilling, there have been calls to regulate the industry. Ironically, in an Orwellian twisting of the truth, the industry counters by arguing that the EPA 2004 report, (which we have already seen was heavily influenced by the industry), is proof enough that the process is safe and needs no regulation.

This argument is used in the industry website Energy in Depth to refute The Center for American Progress's (CAP) demands for legislation revealing the ingredients of fracking fluids.

Calling CAP "an influential, left-of-center public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.", and describing its support of The Frac Act of 2009 as support for "legislation that seeks to impede the development of America's abundant shale gas resources by targeting the critical tools needed to bring those resources to market," Energy in Depth goes on to refute the need for regulation by citing the 2004 EPA report:
In 2004, no less an authority than the EPA itself undertook an exhaustive research project aimed at finding out, once and for all, whether hydraulic fracturing posed a legitimate risk to ground and drinking water. It found "no evidence" of any such risk.
Instead, a rosy picture of job creation, millions of dollars in revenue for states and municipalities, and the continued availability of safe water which defies all fact and experience is used to convince lawmakers already desperate for funds in this worsening recession that horizontal drilling is just what is needed to bring the economic relief they need.

As a result of such misleading reassurances, Energy in Depth has announced that New York's Governor Paterson is leaning towards having his state avail itself of this technology. Energy in Depth's Lee Fuller applauds this decision in the following statement:
"Governor Paterson's initial energy proposal is a step in the right direction. He rightly acknowledges that the Marcellus region offers enormous economic opportunity for his state and its citizens at a time when it's needed most, and also notes the important role that hydraulic fracturing will play in safely and responsibly delivering those natural gas resources to the people who need them.

The governor also highlighted the fact that New York has lost more than 200,000 jobs over the last year, producing an unemployment rate higher now than it's been in 15 years. His report comes just weeks after a study found that natural gas production in Broome County could create 16,000 new jobs, nearly $800 million in wages, and more than $15 billion in economic activity - every bit of it made possible thanks to the safe and steady deployment of hydraulic fracturing technology."
Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, said this in a release:
"It cannot be overstated; the Marcellus Shale formation holds tremendous economic potential for New York. Increasing the production of this clean-burning and abundant natural resource will improve the economy, result in increased tax revenues and jobs, and improve New York's and America's energy independence."
If Governor Paterson does unleash horizontal drilling on the unsuspecting citizens of New York City and State, one day soon they may find themselves experiencing situations like the ones below.

In 2001, the Canadian gas company Encana fractured a well 1,000 feet from the home of Larry and Laura Amos in western Colorado. Eighty two thousand gallons of fluid were pumped thousands of feet into the drill hole at 3,600 pounds of pressure. This is what happened next:
Suddenly the Amos' drinking water well exploded like a Yellowstone geyser, firing its lid into the air and spewing mud and gray fizzing water high into the sky. State inspectors tested the Amos well for methane and found lots of it. They did not find benzene or gasoline derivatives and they did not test fracking fluids, state records show, because they didn't know what to test for.

The Amoses were told that methane occurs naturally and is harmless. Inspectors warned them to keep the windows open and vent the basement, but they were never advised to protect themselves or their infant daughter from the water. It wasn't until three years later, when Laura Amos was diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor, that she started challenging the state about the mysterious chemicals that might have been in her well.

Even after the company paid a mulitmillion suit to Laura Amos, it continued to claim that the facturing fluid was not to blame for her health issues.
The following video posted by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica on January 31, 2009 describes the effects of hydraulic fracturing on Sublette County, Wyoming and gives a sense of the impact this technology has on land, water, quality of life, and the health of communities subjected to it.

In addition to the mysterious illnesses that just happen to break out in areas which have been exposed to fracking fluids, is the phenomenon of sudden explosions which also occur in areas that have been recently drilled. These explosions are significant in that they directly relate to the contamination of the water supply by the leakage of methane gas into wells and aquifers.

Buried Secrets: Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies?
In December 2007, a house in Bainbridge, Ohio exploded in a fiery ball. Investigators discovered that the neighborhood's tap water contained so much methane that the house ignited. A study released this month concluded that pressure caused by hydraulic fracturing pushed the gas, which is found naturally thousands of feet below, through a system of cracks into the groundwater aquifer.
Other concerns are the corruption of the integrity of watersheds and other water sources. The plan to drill in the Marcellus Shale Formation in upstate New York threatens the watershed which supplies pure, unfiltered water to 10 million New York City residents as well as water to farmers and other residents of the state.

Despite safety assurances for the chemicals used in the fracturing fluids, there have been reports of animal deaths near drilling sites using such fluid.

There have also been reports of sinkholes developing on drilling sites. In Denver City, a sinkhole suddenly appeared on a drilling site owned by Occidental Permian Limited which measured 76 feet by 70 feet and was 48 feet deep.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of gas drilling gone awry is the mud volcano that erupted on the island of Java, Indonesia. The mud began to erupt in 2006 following an exploratory drilling procedure, and it hasn't stopped since. Experts are 99% sure that the eruption was caused by drilling.

The mud continues to erupt and flow at a rate of about 100,000 cubic meters a day. There is no way that experts can predict when or where these eruptions will next occur. Some of them have even taken place in people's living rooms!

To make this story even more bizarre, and to add to its horror movie quality, it is estimated that the mud will continue to flow for at least another 30 years!

Here is a Time video that gives a sense of the magnitude of the catastrophe:

In the frenzy that has been generated around the media-generated energy crisis raising fears that we will run out of fossil fuels, we seem to have lost our perspective about which resources are truly necessary to sustain life. Clean air, healthy soil, and of course uncontaminated water are elements upon which all life depends. Generations have lived without fossil fuels, but none have lived without air, soil, and water. These resources must not be allowed to devolve into commodities, for if they do, those who provide them will have the power of life and death over all living things.