By Bill Britton, Contributing Editor
The oil and gas industry gave nearly $250,000 to each of the 62 senators who voted in favor of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project this spring (maplight.org). The fossil fuel industry (oil, coal, natural gas) made total campaign contributions of $40.8 million to members of the 113th Congress. In 2014, the industry paid $144.9 million to lobbyists; in return, the industry received $15.2 billion in subsidies (priceofoil.org). (By contrast, National Park Service funding for 2014 totaled $2.6 billion.) And with the Supreme Court’s obscene decision in the Citizens United case, the floodgates have been opened: witness the Koch brothers pledge of $1 billion toward Republican candidates for the 2016 election cycle.
When Edwin Drake drilled his oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, the modern oil industry began. Demand accelerated with the introduction of the Model-T Ford in 1908 and led to seven decades of “easy” oil, easy in the sense that it was both plentiful and readily accessed. Similarly, natural gas output ramped up to satisfy demand from power companies, residences, and nitrate fertilizer conversion.
Today, much of that easy oil and gas is gone, which has stimulated the installation of ocean drilling platforms, tar-sands mining, and hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which involves injecting water, sand, and various chemicals under high pressure into shale deposits thousands of feet below the surface. The fissures thus formed provide flow pathways for the trapped oil and natural gas.
To give you an idea of the scale of fracking, the Bakken Shale formation alone, located in North Dakota and Montana, is home to upwards of 15,000 fracking wellheads, with another 20,000 planned. By mid 2014, there were over 1.1 million active oil and gas wells of all types in the U.S. Some form of fracking is now used in 90% of all new onshore oil and gas development, and currently accounts for 60% of natural gas production in the U.S. The following photo is of a large fracking field in Wyoming:
The American Petroleum Institute (API) claims that “There are zero confirmed cases of groundwater contamination connected to the fracturing operation in one million wells hydraulically fractured over the last 60 years,” and that “Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are safely (my italics) unlocking vast U.S. reserves of oil and natural gas found in shale and other tight-rock formations” (API website). However, all extraction methods carry with them certain inherent risks to both the environment and life, as is best illustrated by the 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf. Flaring of waste gas is not an atypical oil field sight:
Along with the issues of contamination and safety, a third must be included: the water required for the fracking process. Most fracking takes place in water-stressed areas of the world. In the U.S. and Canada, 55% of the wells hydraulically fractured are in areas experiencing drought and 36% overlay regions with significant groundwater depletion; in Colorado and California, 97% and 96% of the wells, respectively, are in regions with high or extremely high water stress (2014 Ceres report).
Each fracked well requires from 3 to 5 million gallons of water. Up to 80% of the water is “flowback” and returns to the surface. The EPA does not regulate fracking fluids (the mix is an industry secret) even when they enter our water supply because in 2005, fracking was given an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” (The Earth Institute, Columbia University). A 2015 EPA report stated that groundwater contamination from fracking is not widespread, but a number of instances have been documented.
Thus, there are three primary sources of contamination: (1) from the fractured shale leaking oil, gas, and drilling fluid into aquifers supplying drinking water; (2) from fracking wastewater discharged at the surface and then into wastewater injection wells, retention ponds, local streams, or treatment plants; and (3) from natural gas (methane) and other volatiles released into the atmosphere (Note that methane as a greenhouse gas is 25 times more potent than CO2). In any case, the fluid stream contains proven carcinogenics, and in some cases, high levels of radioactivity (The New York Times, 02/27/2011).
An emerging problem is the marked increase in the number of earthquakes in oil fields, not from fracking itself but from the injection of wastewater flowback into deep wells. The earthquake hot spots include portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama, Colorado, and New Mexico. Until recently, many of these states were among those places least likely to have an earthquake (USGS report; Washington Post, 07/03/2014). This is an Oklahoma church damaged by a fracking quake:
The systemic problem is the lack of uniform regulations, and uneven enforcement, at both the state and federal levels. Too often, the regulators are former industry executives whose interests do not always align with the common good. Plus, weak campaign-finance laws have led to legislative “pollution.” But the overriding problem is America’s insatiable demand for energy and the lack of a national will to move toward alternative energy sources. We seem oblivious to the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource and will become exhausted in a century or less, given the current rates of depletion. And as the oil and gas industry drills deeper offshore, expands the mining of tar sands, and fracks shallower shale deposits, the risk of environmental disaster can only increase.