Oil and gas marauders are destroying our land, water, and communities all over America
Whether you're religious or not, seeing flames coming out of your kitchen faucet would be enough to make you fall to your knees, fearing that a cosmic force of incomprehensible evil is loose on our land.
In more and more areas across America, families are discovering to their astonishment that their "water" has turned combustible. Rather than metaphysical, however, the force behind this fiery phenomenon is all too human, and we can even put a name on it: Dick Cheney. His is, after all, the picture-perfect face of snarling political evil, and while you had probably hoped that we'd seen the last of him when he left office three years ago, his presence still looms -- including in the form of flaming faucets.
Those flames come straight from behind-the-scenes maneuvers that Cheney began right at the very start of his vice presidency to achieve a personal legislative goal, which he finally did by inserting this arcane bit of language into the 2005 Bush-Cheney energy policy bill: "Paragraph (1) of section 1421(d) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300h (d)) is amended... [to exclude] the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities." With that, Dick Cheney fracked us.
Hydraulic fracturing -- commonly known in the natural gas drilling industry as "fracking" -- is as coarse as it sounds. It's a mining technique for forcing gas (or oil) out of underground rock formations, in particular gas contained within layers of shale rock that generally lie from 5,000 to 20,000 feet beneath Earth's surface. Here's how it's done: (1) a borehole is drilled down to the shale; (2) a pipe is then cemented into the hole to allow millions of gallons of fracking fluid (water and sand slurry laced with nearly 600 chemicals; of those, 71 can cause 10 or more ailments) to be shot under extremely-high pressure straight down the pipe into the shale rock to crack it apart and prop it open; (3) with the shale fractured, the gas that was trapped in it will naturally seek the easiest path to the surface. Drillers intend for that path to be up the drill hole into their storage tanks, but the gas can have a mind of its own, often escaping like a fugitive into local aquifers or into the air. Stuff happens.
Stuff like gas ending up in the area's drinking water -- leading to such unpleasant surprises as faucets of flame. This tends to upset people, prompting them to action. Thus, to save gas drillers from pesky regulators and bothersome legal liabilities under our Safe Drinking Water Act, the ever-helpful Cheney simply exempted them from the law. Neat.
[FLASHBACK: Aside from his general snarliness and autocratic wickedness, one reason for the Veep's hand-holding attentiveness to the industry is that he has been a central player in it. Prior to becoming George W's vice, he was CEO of Halliburton -- a conglomerate that pioneered fracking and is now the industry's number one fracker, hauling in $1.5 billion a year for such destructive drilling work. Halliburton honchos were on Cheney's secret industry task force that he convened in only his second week in office to rewrite the national energy policy. Even while serving as VP, Dick continued drawing annual paychecks from the giant, totaling more than a million dollars from 2001 through 2005! So, not for nothing is his little amendment to our water safety law dubbed "The Halliburton Loophole."]
Maybe you think this doesn't affect you, because you don't see any fracking where you live, but there's a good chance that you soon will, because profiteering drillers have caught a gold rush fever over shale gas. Huge swaths of our landscape are above known deposits -- from Los Angeles to New York State (see map) -- and more are being found as corporations go for the gold. President Obama and assorted governors have gone all-in to back this wealth of gas (and the tax revenues it might produce), with Obama gushing in a January speech that the US is "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas."
Fracking operations (benignly called "plays" in industry parlance) are already underway in 34 states, not only in remote rural areas, but also in suburbs and cities. Drillers are now pushing technologies to cause larger fractures in the subterranean rock, intending to extract more than half of America's natural gas from shale plays by the end of this decade.
Natural gas is being touted by the industry and its tail-wagging politicos as clean and cheap -- the "magic bullet" for our energy problems. Before we swallow such hype, however, let's just note that the process is named "fracturing" for a reason -- it's inherently destructive, dirty -- and way more costly than the market price of the fuel admits.
WATER. Up to seven million gallons of water are needed to frack a single well. In areas of shortages and drought (increasing in scale and frequency all across our country), this volume alone is a problem, taking a precious resource away from public use so a few profit-seeking corporations can shatter underground rock. Also, getting water to the wells from distant sources requires trucking or pipelines, which create their own sets of environmental, public nuisance, and other costs. Then there's wastewater. One well can recover more than a million gallons of the water shot down its pipe. It comes back up contaminated not only with heavy doses of chemicals that were added to the fracking fluid, but also with cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive elements that occur naturally deep in the Earth, surfacing as a result of the fracking process.
Where does this radioactive mess go? Some of it leaks from the well and gets into drinking water supplies. Some is spilled on-site. Some is actually sprayed on roads as a de-icer -- and at least half is merrily trucked to municipal sewage plants that are ill-equipped to purify it, meaning the nasties are discharged into our rivers and lakes.
CHEMICALS. The industry makes light of the chemical cocktail in fracking fluid, saying that the toxic stuff is a mere one-half of one percent of the mix, with the rest consisting of water and sand. Sounds benign -- except that the 0.5 percent figure equals 20 tons of chemicals per million gallons of fracking fluid (again, up to seven million gallons of fracking fluid per well).
Okay, scoff the frackers, but those "scary" chemicals are substances like guar gum, an emulsifier used in ice cream -- so worry not. Yeah, ice cream from hell! To keep microbes earthborne from devouring the guar gum, it has to be dosed with poisonous biocides. Then, to thin the emulsifier later in the process, it is treated with a form of extremely toxic kerosene (a substance that families in fracking areas say they smell and taste in their air and water -- and a possible source of those pyrotechnic faucets).