Film and Television Producer
Posted: September 30, 2010 09:00 PM
Hydraulic gas drilling, also known as fracture drilling or fracking, promises to scale back the United States’ dependence on foreign sources of energy. But the development of natural gas underneath 50% of New York, 65% of Pennsylvania, about half of Ohio and all of West Virginia has sparked fierce debate among environmentalists and energy companies.
The process involves drilling down into rock formation and exploding it by using very high pressure liquid, mainly water – between two and seven million gallons of water per well mixed with sand and toxic chemicals. The deep pressure explosion results in freeing gas from shale rock to produce hydrocarbons.
At issue – whether the remaining chemicals are leaching into the drinking water of millions of Americans. Gas and oil companies now have their sights set on the Marcellus Shale, an interconnected watershed that delivers water to 16 million people in New York, Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia. Environmentalists are sounding the alarm that widespread drilling could taint the water supply.
In 2004, an Environmental Protection Agency study found no evidence of water contamination caused by fracking, a procedure used in this country for more than 60 years. But according to EPA employee and whistleblower Weston Wilson, the report was “scientifically unsound.” One of the study’s three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie points out that “it was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study.” It should be further noted that no samples were taken during the study.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about pollution, water contamination and health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. One Dallas-Ft.Worth couple recently abandoned their home after doctors discovered fracking chemicals in their blood stream and lungs. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, a woman’s well water tested positive for ethylene glycol, propylene glycol and toluene after natural gas companies drilled in her area. Other residents were able to light their tap water on fire.
Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland”, offers a compelling argument against hydraulic fracturing. The film follows Fox on his cross-country quest for answers about hydraulic fracking. Fox declined $100,000 to allow a gas company to drill on his Delaware River Basin property. He says the energy giants are destroying the environment just to make a profit.
“It’s a scam. It’s changing our entire American environmental democratic system to shoot the profits of energy companies. They can dump toxic materials into rivers and streams. They can pollute the air and they don’t have to clean up afterwards.”
Fox is referring to an exemption in the 2005 Energy Policy Act known as the Halliburton Loophole which prevents the EPA from regulating hydraulic gas drilling. The provision was a single page inserted in one of the longest bills ever passed. A bi-partisan majority signed off on the measure, including Senator Obama, with only 25 lawmakers voting against it, including Sens. Biden, Clinton, Kyl, Kennedy, McCain, Schumer and Voinavich to name a few. The reality is, many lawmakers probably never read the near 1400 page measure.
But as Fox points out, “There were people who understood what the exemption was but I think most of it sounds like there was a lot of ignorance about hydraulic fracturing in 2005. It hadn’t been done a lot. It really exploded after the measure was passed.”
Now Congress is considering a measure to regulate fracture drilling in advance of the EPA’s 2012 study on the process. The FRAC Act would require energy companies to fully disclose chemicals used in fracture drilling. Earlier this year, two top oil-field executives voluntarily disclosed to the House Energy Committee that their companies had pumped hundreds of thousands of diesel fluid in their fracturing compound – in violation of a voluntary agreement with the EPA.
Yet industry executives insist fracking poses no environmental health risks. Institute for Energy Research President Thomas J. Pyle, in response to Amy Harder’s National Journal post on the subject states, “The debate about hydraulic fracturing is more about EPA regulation of the process, which… has been successfully regulated by individual states since the inception of the technology in 1949, than disclosure.”
Pyle adds, “More importantly, by giving the EPA regulatory oversight of this process, the environmental movement scores a victory by shutting down the exploration of oil and natural gas as regulations are written. At its core, that’s exactly what the green movement seeks to accomplish.”
New York Environmental Protection Bureau Chief Peter Lehner, in the same article notes, “… fracking for natural gas is acceptable only if safeguards on the entire extraction process are in place. And right now, they are not. The consequences speak for themselves. Numerous investigations show that insufficiently regulated natural gas extraction has been shown to contaminate drinking water and endanger human health.”
Currently energy companies are exempt from the major environmental laws including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act, allowing them carte blanche to inject toxic materials into the ground near major water sources without being monitored.
Fox says, “The big problem is that the gas companies are so powerful they are actually convincing the federal government to overlook the damage to the water supply for a short term energy fix. They have enough money that they’ve persuaded state and federal governments that it’s not a bad plan, when it’s a horrible plan. When you start contaminating all the water supply it’s a very scary thing.”
Exxon Mobil’s $41-billion merger last December with natural gas company XTO allows for drilling in the Catskill and Delaware watersheds, which supply drinking water to all of New York City. It’s significant to note a clause in the merger states Exxon can back out of the deal if the Safe Drinking Water Act is reinstated.
“So they know exactly what they’re doing,” Fox says. “They know that stuff poses a hazard to the environment and they’ll get out of it. It’s all about their profit margins.”
A great deal of money is at stake and lawmakers may undoubtedly feel the pressure to support fracture drilling which promises to create 2.8 million jobs. In Pennsylvania, hard hit by the economy, the gas and oil companies have secured 550 drilling permits, creating nearly 30,000 jobs and $240 million in state and local tax revenue.
Fox argues the economic boost is a bad deal for Pennsylvania. “I don’t know why you can’t green and revitalize Pennsylvania’s economy by starting more off the grid houses since there are already more off the grid water supplies than anywhere in the country. It’s the perfect atmosphere. Having small windmills and solar panels and that would be supplementing your energy needs. Besides, once you have destroyed the water supplies, it’s so much more expensive to deal with that problem than it is to deal with an alternative energy source.”
As companies continue to drill, accounts of fracking dangers surface as well. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, 13 families have filed lawsuits against Southwestern Energy Company for allegedly leaking toxic fluid into local groundwater, exposing residents to poisonous chemicals and contaminating their water wells.
New York water may also be under threat. The environmental group Riverkeeper, testifying at an EPA hearing on September 16, 2010, detailed more than 100 cases of water contamination due to fracture drilling across the country.
According to Associated Press:
“Riverkeeper documented more than 20 cases of tainted drinking water in Pennsylvania; more than 30 cases of groundwater and drinking water contamination in Colorado and Wyoming; and more than 10 surface water spills of drilling fluid in the Marcellus Shale region. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has logged 1,435 violations of the state’s oil and gas laws in the Marcellus Shale in the last two and a half years.”
With those numbers in mind, Fox notes, “To not be monitoring what toxic chemicals an industry is pumping into the ground is insane, especially in large quantities near a water supply.”
09.13.10 :: Latest Developments :: Safeguard Drinking Water
Riverkeeper releases First-of-its-kind Report on Environmental Impacts of Gas Drilling
Fractured Communities is a follow-up to the 2009, Riverkeeper Case Studies report presented to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in an attempt to dispel myths from state regulators and gas industry executives that drilling was always safe and that reports of contamination were inaccurate. This report highlights some of the environmental impacts that hard working Americans have had to deal with as we strive to work with government agencies and industries to take the lead in creating long-term energy solutions and sustainable economies of scale that do not require the sacrifice of clean air and water. It also provides recommendations that may help to alleviate some of the problems documented across the country, including legislative and regulatory actions that would be necessary in order to prevent and control further environmental contamination.
Date Published: Friday, September 17th, 2010
Gas Drilling Report Details 100+ Contamination Incidents
An environmental group has compiled a report detailing more than 100 instances of environmental contamination linked to the gas drilling operations around the country. The group, Riverkeeper, is urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to examine these incidents as it studies the gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The report, Fractured Communities, highlights case studies where federal and state regulators identified gas drilling operations, including those that utilize hydraulic fracturing, as the known or suspected cause of groundwater, drinking water, and surface water contamination.”
“Despite industry rhetoric to the contrary, the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing are real,” Craig Michaels, Watershed Program Director for Riverkeeper and an author of the report, said in a statement. “The case studies highlighted here represent just a sample of problems that regulators, landowners, municipalities, and communities across the country continue to uncover. We trust that EPA will assist state agencies in monitoring and investigating these problems as the agency continues its scientific study of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing.
Specifically, the report documents:
• More than 20 cases of drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania;
• More than 30 cases of groundwater and drinking water contamination in Colorado and Wyoming;
• More than 10 cases of surface water spills of drilling fluid in the Marcellus Shale region;
• More than 30 investigations of stray gas migration from new and abandoned wells in Pennsylvania;
• Dozens of illegal operations and permit violations by gas drilling companies;
• Five explosions that occurred between 2006 and 2010 that contaminated groundwater and/or surface water.
According to Riverkeeper, state regulators have assessed over $3.6 million in penalties against gas companies as a result of these violations.
Riverkeeper’s mission is to protect the ecological integrity of New York State’s Hudson River and its tributaries, and to safeguard the drinking water supply of New York City and the lower Hudson Valley. Gas drillers have been eyeing massive deposits in New York’s Marcellus shale region, which includes the entire Catskills watershed that provides New York City with all of its drinking water. People there are worried that drilling could pollute the watershed. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has had gas drilling permit approvals on hold since 2008 while it conducts an environmental review of fracking.
The EPA announced its fracking study in March, following an order from the US Congress. The agency had issued a report on hydraulic fracturing in 2004, but it was criticized as flawed due to heavy industry influence on the panel that reviewed that study. The 2004 study ostensibly found that fracking posed no threat to water quality, but an EPA whistleblower claimed findings that showed benzene and other toxic chemicals in fracking fluid could migrate into ground water had been suppressed in the final report.
It was that report that convinced Congress to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, regulation of the industry is left up to the states, and drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in their fracking fluids.