published Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Cleaveland: Natural gas harvesting has environmental cost

Vast reservoirs of natural gas exist far beneath the Earth’s surface, encased in dense shale. Tapping into these deposits raises important questions regarding the public’s health. So far these issues have not been addressed.

Proponents of newer, technologies for harvesting natural gas foresee a future in which the gas replaces oil as the fuel of choice for transportation, manufacturing and power generation. Because of its natural-gas deposits, the United States could, within a few years, become independent of Middle Eastern oil. Our gas reservoirs are sufficient to last well into the next century. Oil companies could evolve into natural gas companies. Trucks, locomotives and automobiles could be engineered to run on natural gas. Domestic and foreign companies compete for mineral rights in gas-rich areas of our country.

Advocates contend that natural gas is a far cleaner and more environmentally friendly fuel than the oil-derived products which it would replace. Slick ads on television emphasize economy and safety.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the technique by which the gaseous deposits are accessed. Fracking involves drilling a vertical shaft into the thick layer of shale. A horizontal shaft is then directed toward the deposit. At this point, millions of gallons of water containing a variety of chemicals, sand, and other solid materials are propelled under very high pressures to shatter the shale and thereby release the entrapped gas.

The fracking fluid and gas are pumped to the surface. Gas is separated from fluid which is transferred to holding ponds or storage tanks. Unknown quantities of the fluid are never recovered.

The risk of fracking to human health has been largely ignored. In 2005 Congress approved legislation that exempts fracking from provisions of the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) and the Clean Air Act (CAA). This exemption has been dubbed the “Halliburton Loophole.” The Environmental Protection Agency is effectively prohibited from assessing the impact of fracking practices upon air, water, and health.

Fracking fluids contain an amazing array of substances — sand, walnut hulls, tallow, salt, and an variety of known carcinogens. Carcinogens and other known toxic substances were detailed in a minority report of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce in April. Benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethyl benzene are among the carcinogens found in fracking fluids that areordinarily regulated under the SWDA and the CAA. Drilling companies also employ in fracking a number of propriety chemicals (trade-secrets) which they have been unwilling to identify.

Fluids leak into fresh water aquifers below ground and into streams and rivers when spills occur above ground. A recent blow-out of a well in Pennsylvania spilled a large quantity of fracking fluid into soil and nearby streams.

Gaslands, a film produced in 2009 by Josh Fox, documents the hazards of fracking to human and animal health. In a cross-country investigation, Fox interviewed farmers and ranchers who suffered polluted wells, sick livestock, and a variety of symptoms attributed to air and water pollution from nearby fracking sites. Household members experienced loss of taste and smell and numbness of their extremities. Gas sometimes bubbled into their drinking water and could be ignited at faucets. Gas companies had made a number of cash settlements related to claims of personal injury.

Areas in Arkansas present another hazard of fracking. Frequency of minor earthquakes increased in tandem with intense fracking operations. When fracking was temporarily suspended, the quakes subsided.

Methane that leaks at well-heads creates another problem. Methane is twenty-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse or heat-trapping gas. Gaseous leaks from well-heads has also caused symptoms of nausea for nearby residents. Evaporation of chemicals from holding ponds filled with fracking fluids poses another unmeasured hazard.

Congressional hearings have minimized the health risks of fracking. Partisanship and profit cannot be permitted to preempt concerns for the public’s health. The EPA must have its authority restored to monitor all aspects of fracking. Otherwise we will sacrifice health and ultimately lives to unsound drilling practices.

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