Equipment arrives at this dairy farm.
Will Fracking Affect My Family?
By Laura Grace
Have you heard about fracking? It may seem like it
will have no impact on your or your family. But take a look at the facts.
A dairy farm not far from us is the first in our area
to begin hydraulic fracturing. This process was developed to extract
formerly unattainable gas and oil from rock a mile or more below the
surface. Unlike old style wells bored straight down or at a slant, these go
down and then proceed horizontally. Using a mixture of water, sand, and
chemicals the rock is fractured (hence the name) to release fossil fuels.
This is commonly called fracking.
I went to look for myself.
The bucolic farm is snuggled along gentle hillsides. An Amish buggy went by
as I took in the dissonant sight of Holsteins grazing and huge rigs marked
Halliburton parked just off the narrow rural road. Drilling hadn’t started.
I wondered if fracking chemicals could possibly affect those cows and wind
up in their milk. How many of us know where
our yogurt once grazed?
I’m as energy dependent as the next person. But I
wanted to know more about fracking, especially how it might affect my family
and community, so I started hunting down information.
Sorting through the confusion
My husband and I attended a
public meeting held to promote leasing by landowners. There were lots of
glossy handouts and a power point presentation. The speakers said that 60
years of gas well drilling had never caused a health or safety problem. I
found the same reassuring claims by the oil and gas industry in advertising
campaigns and online
reports. Friends who’ve already signed
fracking leases repeat this too.
It seems to me
they’re blurring the distinction between decades of experience in vertical
drilling methods and the much newer process of fracking. It’s not hard to
find incidents around my hometown of older-style wells causing trouble. That
includes homes with explosive
levels of methane as well as a house
explosion linked to inadequate
cementing of well casings. Apparently such problems have occurred in both vertically drilled
wells and fracked
But technically, assertions
that fracking is safe are largely true. That’s because industry
and government regulatory agencies use
the term “fracking” only as it relates to the actual process of pumping
fluids into the ground to break apart rock. So when they make claims about
fracking safety, they don’t include what happens while drilling,
constructing the well, setting off explosions, dealing with blowouts or well
fires, storing waste water in open containment basins, vapors emitted from
condensate tanks, open flaring to burn off gasses, transporting waste,
injecting waste water into deep disposal wells, or at any point in the
future when the wells may leak.
That’s convenient, because
a University of Texas study found that these are the activities
actually contaminating air, water, and soil.
So both sides are “right” in the fracking debate. The industry is correct
when they say that fracking is largely safe because of their limited
definition of the word. People concerned about the environmental and health
consequences lump all activities associated with the process under the term
“fracking,” making their claims of risk correct too.
Maybe this is one reason
why media coverage of fracking is so confusing. For example, the standard
fracking-related practice of disposing
of waste in deep injection wells has
to earthquakes inColorado, Oklahoma, Texas,
and Arkansas according
to a U.S.
Geological Survey study. In my home
state of Ohio earthquakes have also been linked to this disposal
method, although the state continues to
accept fracking waste brought in from other states. Last year Ohio injected 12
million barrels of waste deep below her
surface. But plenty of media outlets, quoting the same studies, run
reassuring headlines like “Don’t
worry much about quakes and ‘fracking’”
rise, fracking not to blame“ even if
farther down in the article it’s noted that earthquakes are associated
with deep injection wells used to dispose of fracking waste.
I think it’s time we developed a new word or phrase
to discuss the issue more clearly. For now I’ll use “fracking-related
Disclosure and rights
Those of us who live in areas said to be rich in
shale oil are being romanced. Industry representatives hold open houses.
Lawyers eager to get a share of leasing money by selling pooled rights do
too. I’ve paid close attention at these meetings. The emphasis is mostly on
how much money can be made. We’re told that those who get their land drilled
first will have the highest yields and the most money. One speaker
demonstrated with a straw and a cup of soda, showing that wherever drillers
(his straw) first pierced would have access to the most gas (soda) below. He
slurped loudly, then asked if anyone thought he’d leave much behind for
those who leased their land later.
Many participants eagerly signed up. Any concerns
raised were quickly soothed. At a meeting held in a rural church we were
told that landowners would be left with trees, grass, and a single wellhead
providing substantial income for 30 or more years. Big money, restored
land–sounds good, right?
The promise of a hefty
income rising from the ground well below our feet comes at a time when many
Americans are reeling from unemployment, poor housing prices, and debt. And
all over the country, property owners like small to medium dairy farms are losing
their livestock and often their land because
they can’t turn a profit. Fracking seems like a life line.
But when I talk to people who have already signed a
lease many are upset, believing they haven’t gotten as much money as they
deserved. Others believe they’ve been lied to about the environmental
impact. Surely there are happy lease-holders out there, I just keep running
into those who feel they’ve been deceived.
At an open house meeting
last fall, a conversation between
an Ohio property owner and industry representatives was tape recorded. The
property owner asked about chemicals used in fracking. He was told, “We
don’t put any chemicals down in the ground. We just use regular, fresh
water.” Another industry representative coming into the room later said the
process uses household chemicals like dish washing detergent.
These are common claims. At
one meeting we were told that fracking chemicals are no more dangerous than
cleaning products in the average home. Cheerful
articles online tell us that the same
chemicals using in fracking can be found in hand sanitizer, fabric softener,
even hot dogs. (I’ll take a brief look at why that’s not the whole story in
And leases may be misleading. A New
York Times review of 111,000
documents showed that most
homeowners aren’t aware what rights the industry takes.
A majority of leases do not require companies to
compensate landowners for water contamination or damages to the land.
Even if state regulations force industry to
replace contaminated drinking water, not all costs are covered nor are
needs of crops or livestock included.
Many consumer protection laws do not apply.
Some leases deduct costs such as hauling to or
from the site.
Energy companies can use the property to build
roads, store chemicals, cut down trees, run equipment 24 hours a day,
and build containment ponds (in some instances covering them with dirt
rather than hauling away the waste).
Few landowners are fully aware that their
property becomes, in essence, an industrial site.
insurance policies will not cover problems related to fracking.
They also may not be
aware of a potential loss
in property value.
But local citizens have
very little control over fracking. Depending where they live, fracking may
occur under cemeteries and
parks. Some cities
as well as colleges are considering
lease offers. Despite regulations that normally zone residential areas apart
from industrial areas, drilling can take place near homes and schools.
Residents in Colorado, Texas, West
Virginia, and elsewhere are advocating
for stronger regulations to protect schoolchildren from the noise and dust
generated by these sites. In some areas drilling sites are only required to
be 350 feet from schools and 200 feet from homes. (In New Mexico, one school
playground is 150 feet from a well.) No
matter how vehemently citizens object, the ability to pass local ordinances
regulating gas and oil producers can be superseded by state or federal
regulations. This provides the industry rights normally not allowed under
For example, in 38
states you can’t say no to fracking on your land if
others in your area have already signed leases. It’s called by all sorts of
names such as “mandatory pooling” or “compulsory integration.” This means
a horizontal drilling line can run under your property whether you want it
there or not. It’s really eminent domain by private enterprise. Such laws
make it easy for gas and oil representatives to tell people they might as
well sign up, because underground reserves will be extracted anyway. That’s
the reason people we know are signing leases. That there’s no
legal recourse shocks some homeowners
when drilling begins.
For many of us, fracking operations (called “plays”)
seem like a distant threat. But they’re taking place not only in rural areas
but cities, suburbs, and park lands with several hundred thousand new wells
scheduled for drilling in the next few years.
We also heard lots of talk about how much good this
gas and oil will do to boost the local economy and help our nation to get
back national energy independence. These are laudable goals. I’m not sure
they’re more than optimistic projections.
Any talk of jobs is likely
to generate enthusiasm in our still flagging economy. Those of us living in
shale oil areas have been told that an employment boom is around the corner.
In Ohio we’re assured that our state will see 65,000
jobs and $3.3 billion in wages within
two years. But analysis of
data from states already experiencing a fracking boom finds only a modest
rise in employment, even when factoring in supply chain jobs and increased
spending by workers and landowners. Looking more closely at the numbers,
it’s clear that the majority of the energy paychecks are going to
out-of-state contract workers who handle drilling and hauling.
They don’t have the most
enviable jobs. Oil field workers are exempt from certain safety rules,
leading to a higher
rate of accidents than other industries. In
one state alone, police found that 40
percent of the 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected were in such
serious disrepair they were taken off the road. The Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention reports that fatality rates for oil workers are seven
times the national average.
actually places a heavy burden on municipalities. The industry estimates
over 200,000 new wells will be fracked across the U.S. in the next decade.
Each one requires 500 to 1,500 truck trips to haul equipment, water, and
waste. Massively increased traffic brought by these heavy rigs is likely to
hasten the deterioration of roads and bridges. The American Society of Civil
Engineers (ASCE) puts out regular report
cards on the country’s infrastructure.
They note that bridges are normally built to last 50 years. The average U.S.
bridge is now 43 years old. Overall, the ASCE gives U.S. infrastructure
(including roads, bridges, and water supply) a grade of ”D.”
It costs in city services
as well. Police have reported increased
calls in some areas due to the surge in
temporary workers associated with drilling. And first responders such as
fire fighters and paramedics may not have the equipment, training, or funds
to handle new
perils that come with drilling and
Maybe this is the price we have to pay. After all,
we’re told that fracking is a reliable means to achieve energy independence.
I hear lots of these talking points repeated in meetings and in print, often
along with some patriotic fervor tossed in for emphasis, but it isn’t easy
to figure out energy facts in all the hubbub. As a concerned parent and
citizen, I’m still trying to sort it out.
Here are some things I’m
mulling over. The U.S.
exports more gasoline than it imports,
so energy independence isn’t as simple as the “drill, baby, drill” signs I
see in my community. And shale oil, which can be extracted along with
natural gas from the fracking process in some areas, is more
expensive to extract and refine than
crude oil. But most of the energy generated by fracking comes in the form of
natural gases and liquid gases such as ethane, propane, and butane. Over
the last ten years this industry has spent 20.5 million dollars on donations
to Congress and 726 million dollars on lobbying to continue steering
subsidies toward fossil fuel, keep
regulation minimal, and boost incentives. Government policy decisions are
locking in tax dollars for years to come on natural
gas incentives based on industry and
Wall Street speculation about the amount of gas that can be extracted. It
will cost 700
billion to convert just some of our
coal-fired plants to natural gas, a pricey venture when estimates of these
reserves keep dropping.
At the same time, reports
from financial and energy sectors indicate such speculation is shaky. Huge
investments made in leasing and supplies are not
returning profits as projected. The
Times called it the next
economic bubble, comparing it to the financial disaster caused by real
estate financing. For some companies, such as Chesapeake
Energy, the bubble may already be
It’s not just a
financial bubble, there’s also a gap between the industry’s wildly
optimistic estimates and the realities of extraction. Petroleum engineers
note that initial production rates are high but dropping. Although President
Obama’s State of the Union address repeated industry claims that we’re
sitting on a 100 year supply of natural gas, a week later the Energy
Information Administration revised its estimatesof
Marcellus Shale gas downward by 66 percent and overall potential U.S.
reserves by 40 percent. ASlate report takes
a close look at the numbers. The estimated supply actually lumps ”proved
reserves” (meaning it’s known to exist and is recoverable) with those that
are “probable,” “possible,” and “speculative.” In other words, most of the
so-called surplus of gas may not exist or be recoverable. Only an 11 year
supply falls into the “proven” category, and that’s if our usage doesn’t go
up. As Slate dryly
notes, “By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including
all your ‘probable, possible, and speculative resources.’”
Government and industry
continue to insist that
a boom is on although a well-by-well
analysis notes that gas production is
much flatter than hyped and “the gold rush is over.” The number of
drill rigs operating in North America continues to fall and production
per well, on average, declines by 44
percent per year compared to 23 percent for wells in traditional gas fields.
Some people we know who have leased their property
worry that the companies owning their leases are simply speculating in land
and will sell those leases to foreign companies. I held up my hand at one
meeting and asked an industry representative if any leases might ever be
sold to non-U.S. companies. “Absolutely not,” I was told. “This is about
American energy independence.”
I came home and looked it
up. All sorts of huge foreign companies are buying up rights. For example,
the Australian company BHP Billiton bought 4.75 billion worth of shale
assets in Arkansas,
the French company Total will pay 2.25 billion for shale assets in Texas and
2.32 billion for assets in Ohio,
and the Chinese firm, Sinopec, is spending billions to scoop up assets
across the U.S. from firms like Devon
and Chesapeake. Selling these assets is, of course, the prerogative of any
company owning them. Obscuring the truth about it to landowners before they
sign the leases doesn’t seem to be a priority.
The fracking boom (or
bubble) isn’t limited to the U.S. It’s taking place or about to in Canada, Argentina, China, Mozambique, Russia, Poland, Israel, Australia,
Health and environmental considerations
We also attended public
meetings run by several area groups hastily formed to oppose fracking. They
brought speakers in from across the state and beyond. I listened to Joe
Logan, a representative of the Ohio
Environmental Council, explain how
fracking-related activity can affect
the food we eat. His charts showed that
heavy metals and chemicals migrate into air, soil, and water. These
contaminants can diminish crop yield, affect the health of livestock, and
imperil organic certification. He noted that current laws are not
sufficient to protect the food supply
or food producing areas from the effects of fracking.
I listened to Doug
Shields, former member of the
Pittsburgh City Council, explain how fracking-related activity is exempt
from major environmental laws that currently protect the public.
The oil and gas industry does not have to comply with key provisions of the
Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund Act,
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Environmental Policy Act, or the
Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.
A local man stood up with a jug of brown water from
his once clear well. Since his land was fracked the water has been foul
smelling and murky, although state officials told him it was okay to drink.
Another woman said brine was dumped on a road by her house and when she paid
to have it tested it was found to contain chemicals associated with
fracking, although state officials declined to investigate. I talked to many
other people at these meetings: college students, farmers, retirees, mothers
with small children living near active fracking sites. The information they
shared was alarming. Here’s a little of what I’ve been able to confirm.
Each fracking operation
takes 1.2 million gallons to 5 million gallons of water, sometimes more.
Each additional time a site is fracked more water is required. Water
stress (an imbalance between water use
and water resources) is fast becoming an alarming
global issue. When water is withdrawn
from natural sources for drinking, irrigation, and other typical uses it
normally finds its way back into the global water supply. But a substantial
portion (15 to 40 percent) of the water used in fracking operations is left deep
in the ground. What does come back up (called “flowback” as well as
“produced water” which naturally occurs in shale) is often put in deep
injection wells for long-term storage. This method not only edges up the
potential for earthquakes, it also takes much-needed water out of planetary
Chemical components make up
only about 0.5 percent of fluids used in fracking-related activity, the rest
being water and sand. This sounds like a reassuringly small amount, until
you multiply the millions of gallons of water used per fracking site with
the number of sites being fracked. Some estimate that
20 tons of chemicals are used per million gallons of fracking fluid. (This
number does not include drilling
fluids and other chemicals that augment
Congressional report lists 750 known
fracking chemicals in order of most common usage. Here’s a partial account
of those used in highest amounts.
Some of these chemicals are
indeed similar to chemicals used around the home. But a 2011
analysis found that 25 percent are
carcinogens; 37 percent are endocrine
disruptors; more than 40 percent can
impair the immune system and nervous system; and three-quarters can irritate
the eyes and lungs. It’s important to remember that some chemicals are toxic
in concentrations much less than one part-per-million and the synergistic
effect of most chemicals is largely unknown.
The fluid that comes back
up also contains ingredients that didn’t go in. This means naturally
occurring matter such as heavy
metals, volatile organic compounds (including benzene, toluene, xylene),
radioactive materials (including lead, arsenic, strontium),
microbes. It also means chemical
compounds created by the reactions of chemicals during any stage of the
process. Claims of air, ground, and water pollution due to fracking-related
activity are often dismissed by industry and government officials because
some contaminants are considered “naturally occurring.” And let’s not forget
the water’s salinity. Fracking wastewater has two to three times more salt
than sea water and more than 180 times the level considered acceptable to
drink by the EPA.
Although the industry
insists that all chemicals used in fracking are on
the record there are still rules in
place allowing them to claim chemicals are proprietary or
to disclose what’s used only after the drilling has been completed. In
several states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, physicians
are bound by a “gag rule” which prevents doctors from sharing information
about symptoms, diagnoses, and disease clusters related to fracking
chemicals even with other doctors and public health officials. Some doctors
say they’re not sure if the laws permit them to inform patients either.
Frightening stories abound, like the one about a nurse treating a gas field
worker whose clothes were drenched in chemicals. She fell ill herself.
While she was in ICU with multiple organ failure the worker’s company
refused to identify those chemicals. Turned
out that story was true. (Her state of
Colorado now has forms to
get that information although doctors are still bound by non-disclosure
rules.) Limited information hampers the ability ofmedical
practitioners to link health problems
to environmental contaminants.
How do these and other
toxins linked to fracking-related activity get into the environment?
Here are a few routes.
Leaks and spills during
transportation, mixing, or other fracking-related activity. The
of gallons spilled in one state alone.
Liners that leak or
burst, spilling fluids into the soil. Birds and other wildlife are known
to be affected.
diesel trucks and diesel generators running day and night.
Flaring of gas (burning
into the air), venting of gas (directly releasing into the air), as well
as air release via dehydration units and condensate tanks.
Evaporating unknown quantities of chemicals into
the air from open containment “ponds” of fracking waste. Misters often
spray the liquid in the air to speed up the process. This is standard
across much of the industry.
ground water at depths used for drinking water, typically caused by failures of
well casings but also possibly due to increased permeability of
Inadequate treatment of
waste water at sewage plants.
“treated” fracking waste from water treatment
plants mixed with sludge to be spread on parks and farms.
Waste water released into
surface bodies of water.
Spraying treated fracking
brine on roads to control dust or
melt ice, a method approved by
Ohio EPA and used in many other states although the U.S. EPA advises
against this practice.
Burning natural gas itself is cleaner
than other forms of fossil fuel, as long as larger environmental costs of
the energy-intensive and toxic process of fracking aren’t added to the
equation. In fact a Cornell study concluded
that as much as eight percent of the methane in shale oil leaks into the air
due to fracking, twice the amount released by conventional gas production.
Since methane is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2,
researcher Robert Howarth concluded that shale gas is less “clean” than
conventional gas, coal, or oil. Studies released
by the American Petroleum Institute and American Natural Gas Alliance show
much lower methane emissions. Reports and research
funded by the gas and oil industry tend
to find results more favorable to that industry,
putting the science itself into question.
There are always risks in
fracking, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in a speech,
but he believes the public has been alarmed by “manufactured fear.” As he
sees it, the biggest problem is “taking an illiterate public and try to help
them understand why we can manage these risks.”
For a variety of fracking
perspectives, check out YouTube. You’ll find plenty of videos presenting
viewpoint, as well as stories of
people living near fracking sites, and this quasi-humorous
skewering of what’s being called an industry-wide cover-up of fracking
dangers. It’s hard to find footage simply showing what a fracking operation
looks like, but here’s one filmed by a Penn State extension service.
I went back to take another look at the dairy farm
near us, now being fracked. The area was covered with heavy equipment. A few
employees outfitted in fire retardant suits, masks, and hard hats worked in
the distance. The quiet morning was filled with noise. Gray dust rose in the
air and my throat burned.
When I set out to find out all I could about fracking
I didn’t anticipate such disturbing information. I couldn’t have known
fracking would soon intrude on our lives. I recently learned that fracking
leases have been signed within sight of us to the west, north, and south.
I’m concerned about our land where our cows graze and our chickens scratch.
I’m concerned about my family’s health. And I’m wondering if you’re
This is what fracking looks like.
and reprinted here with the author's permission.