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Tomgram: Ellen Cantarow, The Frontlines of Fracking

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  Thanks go to all of you who sent in donations -- which really do help keep TomDispatch afloat -- in return for a signed, personalized copy of Greg Grandin's spectacular new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Believe me, it lives up to the publicity and glowing reviews it's been getting!  One thing: we're still waiting for our copies to arrive. The offer remains open through the weekend.  (Check out our donation page for the details.) Be patient. Grandin will sign them and we'll have them off to you by late next week. Tom]

What kind of world is this?  In China, an almost 1,350 square mile freshwater lake -- that's more than four times the size of New York City -- recently dried up due to an ongoing drought.  In the high Sierra of America's West, bears have forgone hibernating as a result of (what were once, at least) unseasonably warm conditions.  Across the continent in Maine, increasing ocean acidity is thought to be behind the spread of coastal "dead mud" which may have "disastrous implications for clammers, lobstermen, oyster farmers, and others whose livelihoods depend on healthy coastal ecosystems."  Meanwhile, across the globe in Australia, blistering heat chased koalas from the trees and sent many to the hospital, possibly baked 100,000 bats to death, and is threatening cattle and crops.

In a world wracked by increasing climate chaos, the seemingly appropriate response would be immediate remediation and mitigation efforts.  Instead, this world being what it is, we have just the opposite.  In the U.S., this means increased coal consumption and a resulting rise in carbon emissions for the first time in years.  It means that, despite so much recent damage from "wild weather" flooding all over the country, the Federal Emergency Management Agency often relies on inaccurate flood maps, leaving property owners in jeopardy.  It also means the administration of embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pushing to, as the New York Times put it, "thread a 22-mile-long [gas] pipeline through the heart of the Pinelands, a 1.1-million-acre protected expanse of scrub pines, gnarly oaks, and yellow-brown river deltas."

New Jersey is far from alone when it comes to pipeline peril.  Today, TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow takes us to the frontlines of fracking.  Once, this would have meant a trip to the ancient undulating hills of Wisconsin, which are being despoiled for the silica used in hydraulic fracturing, or the increasingly toxic towns of rural Pennsylvania where such silica and water, as well as a noxious chemical stew, are all forced at high pressure into deep underground deposits of shale.  With a gas pipeline snaking toward her hometown, Cantarow points out that the frontline of increasing fossil-fuel use and abuse is everywhere. You don't need to go looking for a frack fight, anymore.  It's coming looking for you. Nick Turse

No Pipe Dream
Is Fracking About to Arrive on Your Doorstep?
By Ellen Cantarow

For the past several years, I've been writing about what happens when big oil and gas corporations drill where people live. "Fracking" -- high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which extracts oil and methane from deep shale -- has become my beat. My interviewees live in Pennsylvania's shale-gas fields; among Wisconsin's hills, where corporations have been mining silica, an essential fracking ingredient; and in New York, where one of the most powerful grassroots movements in the state's long history of dissent has become ground zero for anti-fracking activism across the country. Some of the people I've met have become friends. We email, talk by phone, and visit. But until recently I'd always felt at a remove from the dangers they face: contaminated water wells, poisoned air, sick and dying animals, industry-related illnesses. Under Massachusetts, where I live, lie no methane- or oil-rich shale deposits, so there's no drilling.

But this past September, I learned that Spectra Energy, one of the largest natural gas infrastructure companies in North America, had proposed changes in a pipeline it owns, the Algonquin, which runs from Texas into my hometown, Boston. The expanded Algonquin would carry unconventional gas -- gas extracted from deep rock formations like shale -- into Massachusetts from the great Marcellus formation that sprawls along the Appalachian basin from West Virginia to New York.  Suddenly, I'm in the crosshairs of the fracking industry, too.

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We all are.

Gas fracked from shale formations goes by several names ("unconventional gas," "natural gas," "shale gas"), but whatever it's called, it's mainly methane. Though we may not know it, fracked gas increasingly fuels our stoves and furnaces. It also helps to fuel the floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and ever-hotter summers that are engulfing the planet. The industry's global-warming footprint is actually greater than that of coal. (A Cornell University study that established this in 2011 has been reconfirmed since.) Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) and an ecological nightmare due to its potential for dangerous leaks.

According to former Mobil Oil executive Lou Allstadt, the greatest danger of fracking is the methane it adds to the atmosphere through leaks from wells, pipelines, and other associated infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found leakage rates of 2.3% to 17% of annual production at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado, and Utah. Moreover, no technology can guarantee long-term safety decades into the future when it comes to well casings (there are hundreds of thousands of frack wells in the U.S. to date) or in the millions of miles of pipelines that crisscross this country.

The energy industry boasts that fracking is a "bridge" to renewable energies, but a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that shale gas development could end up crowding out alternative energies. That's because as fracking spreads, it drives natural gas prices down, spurring greater consumer use, and so more fracking. In a country deficient in regulations and high in corporate pressures on government, this cascade effect creates enormous disincentives for investment in large alternative energy programs.

The sorry state of U.S. renewable energy development proves the case. As the fracking industry has surged, the country continues to lag far behind Germany and Denmark, the world's renewable-energy leaders. A quarter-century after the world's leading climate change scientist, James Hansen, first warned Congress about global warming, Americans have only bad options: coal, shale gas, oil, or nuclear power.

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Living in Gasland

There's been a great deal of reporting about "the drilling part" of fracking -- the moment when drills penetrate shale and millions of gallons of chemical-and-sand-laced water are pumped down at high pressure to fracture the rock. Not so much has been written about all that follows. It's the "everything else" that has turned a drilling technology into a land-and-water-devouring industry so vast that it's arguably one of the most pervasive extractive adventures in history.

According to Cornell University's Anthony Ingraffea, the co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, fracking "involves much more than drill-the-well-frack-the-well-connect-the-pipeline-and-go-away." Almost all other industries "occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools." By contrast, the industry spawned by fracking "permits the oil and gas industries to establish [their infrastructures] next to where we live. They are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals, and schools inside their industrial space."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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