Warning signs near a drilling site in Benton, Pa. (photo by Gary F. Clark)
by Walter Brasch
(Part 1 of 3)
A new Pennsylvania law endangers public health by forbidding health care professionals from sharing information they learn about certain chemicals and procedures used in high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The procedure is commonly known as fracking.
Fracking is the controversial method of forcing water, gases, and chemicals at tremendous pressure of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch into a rock formation as much as 10,000 feet below the earth's surface to open channels and force out natural gas and fossil fuels.
Advocates of fracking argue not only is natural gas "greener" than coal and oil energy, with significantly fewer carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur emissions, the mining of natural gas generates significant jobs in a depressed economy, and will help the U.S. reduce its oil dependence upon foreign nations. Geologists estimate there may be as much as 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout the United States. If all of it is successfully mined, it could not only replace coal and oil but serve as a transition to wind, solar, and water as primary energy sources, releasing the United States from dependency upon fossil fuel energy and allowing it to be more self-sufficient.
The Marcellus Shale --which extends beneath the Allegheny Plateau, through southern New York, much of Pennsylvania, east Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of Maryland and Virginia--is one of the nation's largest sources for natural gas mining, containing as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and could produce , within a decade, as much as one-fourth of the nation's natural gas demand. Each of Pennsylvania's 5,255 wells, as of the beginning of March 2012, with dozens being added each week, takes up about nine acres, including all access roads and pipe.
Over the expected lifetime of each well, companies may use as many as nine million gallons of water and 100,000 gallons of chemicals and radioactive isotopes within a four to six week period. The additives "are used to prevent pipe corrosion, kill bacteria, and assist in forcing the water and sand down-hole to fracture the targeted formation," explains Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. However, about 650 of the 750 chemicals used in fracking operations are known carcinogens, according to a report filed with the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2011. Fluids used in fracking include those that are "potentially hazardous," including volatile organic compounds, according to Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, a part of the federal Centers for Disease Control. In an email to the Associated Press in January 2012, Portier noted that waste water, in addition to bring up several elements, may be radioactive. Fracking is also believed to have been the cause of hundreds of small earthquakes in Ohio and other states.