Not anymore. Firewater has come to mean exactly what it says; water that can flame, like kerosene or gasoline. No longer a brew concocted in a makeshift still hidden somewhere in the hills, now it describes the product of a new-fangled gas exploration and production process. Well maybe not so new, because it seems hydraulic fracturing, as it is formally known has been used in more than one million wells during the past 60+ years.
What the frack is fracking anyway?
It depends on who you ask.
People in the oil and gas industry say "fracking" describes a phase of gas exploration in which chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas.
University of Houston engineering professor Michael Economides, who consults for drillers on fracturing said "Fracking and drilling are not the same thing, we drill wells, then we frack."
Illustration by Stephen Rountree
In 2004, the EPA conducted a study to assess the contamination potential of underground drinking water sources and found fracking fluids pose little or no threat. In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, championed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, which exempted fracking from numerous environmental regulations such as theSafe Drinking Water Act.
Natural gas companies have since installed hundreds of thousands of rigs in 34 states. There are approximately 450,000 wells in the U.S. Each well requires the use of fracking fluids, as well as million of gallons of water which are infused with chemicals. There are presently no laws regulating the fracking process. Although Congress recently mandated that the EPA review the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. The study is expected to be finished in 2012.
A 400-million-year-old geographic formation called the Marcellus Shale lies under much of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The shale may hold 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, enough to meet New York State's needs for 50 years.
Gas Shale Basins of the United States
Here's what proponents of fracking say:
New wells provide energy for all Americans, revenues for the government, lease and royalty payments for landowners, as well as create well-paying jobs, improve U.S. energy security, and encourage economic growth. About 9.2 million U.S. workers are supported by the oil and natural gas industry, and tens of thousands of additional jobs could be created if the industry were allowed to increase its U.S. operations.
The oil and natural gas industry provides most of the energy that heats our homes and powers our factories and offices; it also adds more than $1 trillion to the national economy.
Opponents make this argument:
According to the Ground Water Protection Council, charged with protecting the water supply, fracking chemicals include:
Hydrochloric acid (which can damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines),
Glutaraldehyde (linked to asthma, breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, and skin rashes),
N,N-dimethyl formamide (a solvent that can cause birth defects and cancer),
Ethylene glycol (a lethal toxin), and
Benzene (a potent carcinogen).
Some of these chemicals stay in the ground, while others are vented into the air, enter the water table or leach into ponds, streams, and rivers. Duke University researchers analyzed 68 private ground-water wells in Pennsylvania and New York and found methane levels were 17 times higher in ground water near areas where shale-gas "fracking" wells had been drilled.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle that had come into wastewater that leaked from a nearby well. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a fracked well began bellowing, foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead. Homeowners near fracked sites complain about a host of consequences, from sickened pets to debilitating illnesses.
We don't really know what the truth is. This is just an overview of a complex process. I do wonder why fracking has never been a subject of concern before now. Then again, I believe it is always problematic to drill and crack the earth's core.
Still, I encourage you to look at the upside, even if you have fracking firewater. Just think, you no longer need lighter fluid to fire up the grill, no more kindling for the fireplace and when you really want to impress dinner guests, you can just serve up a few cocktails: tapwater,neat or straight at room temperature without any additional ingredients.
Raise your fracking cocktails and propose a fracking toast to small unintrusive government and the lack of those fracking job-killing, corporate-stifling regulations.
****** UPDATE *****
Texas: Drillers Must Disclose "Fracking' Chemicals
Gov. Rick Perry has signed a bill requiring drillers to disclose the chemicals they use when extracting oil and gas from rock formations, making Texas the first state to pass such a law.
Fracking propaganda for children: A fracking coloring book.