Yesterday, I took my last final exam and turned in my last paper, so I am free again to share some of the information I gleaned this semester from the amazing faculty at Harvard and my fellow classmates, who are also quite an impressive bunch of individuals. In my daily professional life out in the swamps and bushes of the Caribbean counting plants, I am usually blissfully working outside of the U.S. legislative framework, which can be onerous to say the least. On the other hand, working in countries with little regulation also makes clear the need for such requirements. In spite of what right-leaning pundits would have you believe, relieved of any requirements to act in an environmentally responsible way, polluting industries will externalize their pollutants and harm into the environment without thinking twice about it. In the fifteen years I have been doing environmental impact assessment, I have never experienced a single case where a developer simply volunteered to do the environmentally correct thing unless it was going to save him money.
We need regulation. Countries where regulations are lax or non-existent invariably become dumping grounds for toxic waste or the homes of polluting industries that can’t be bothered with the costs of cleaning up their acts. There are several million synthetic chemicals that have been produced by humans. About 70,000 of them are currently being regularly used by industry and at least 35,000 of those have been identified as toxic to humans and/or ecosystems. Without regulation, these chemicals end up in our bodies and environment, many of them, like dioxin, PCBs and mercury, permanently.
But we live in the United States of America, and since the enlightened years of yes, the Nixon Administration, we have enjoyed the protection of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Over the years since these landmark regulations have been in place, air and water quality in the United States has improved dramatically, even as the population has increased. Most Americans take for granted that industry is sufficiently regulated and cannot pose a threat to people and the environment, and for the most part, this would be true, unless the polluter’s name is Halliburton. In a 2005 ruling known not ironically as the “Halliburton Exemption,” the Bush/Cheney/Halliburton Administration specifically exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” from the Clean Water Act on the basis that it posed “no serious threat” to water resources.
The Bush Administration was never known for its transparency or honesty, and since that ruling much information has come to light that shows that fracking not only poses serious threats, but that the impacts of such activities may be catastrophic. Self-promoting ads present natural gas as the “clean” fuel, and it is true that when burned, natural gas produces about 1/3 of the carbon dioxide of coal and oil, but the half-truth of clean natural gas is overshadowed by pesky reality. Several recent studies reveal that impacts to the environment and public health, known in the industry as “externalities,” may occur throughout every phase of natural gas drilling and power generation.
The contamination begins from day one. To drill a gas well, Halliburton and their colleagues have developed drilling “muds” that are applied to the borehole edge of the drilling rig. These muds are slurries of undisclosed toxic chemical compounds and are applied to the bore hole edge of the drilling rig to facilitate the process. The chemicals are undisclosed because Halliburton et. al. claim they are “proprietary” blends. Like the eleven herbs and spices in Kentucky Fried Chicken, they are a secret recipe. Once the well is drilled, between two and nine million gallons of fresh water are combined with sand and chemical products (also undisclosed under the claim of “proprietary” information) and injected into the recovery zone under high pressures in order to fracture the substrate and release the natural gas contained within.
Since fracking conveniently isn’t regulated under the Clean Water Act, all those proprietary blends of chemicals would be completely anonymous in the environment except residents in communities where fracking is taking place started to notice a few issues like brown water coming out of their faucets that ignites when lit with a match. Fish and wildlife in nearby streams started dying and the smells of water and air started to burn the nasal passages. In response, several heroic scientists took it upon themselves to investigate.
Theo Colborn and associates set out to determine exactly which chemicals were being used and were able to identify 632 chemicals. 75% of these chemicals could have negative skin, sensory organ, respiratory and gastrointestinal effects, 37-50% could have negative effects on the nervous, immune and cardiovascular, endocrine and excretory systems and 25% are potentially carcinogenic (Colborn, Kwiatkowski, Schultz, & Bachran, 2011).
In addition to the toxic chemicals added to the fracking brew, natural gas is recovered with a host of naturally-occurring contaminants such as hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, heavy metals and radioactive materials, to name a few. These contaminants are stored in pits along with used drilling mud and fracking fluids where they can and do leach into groundwater and run off into waterways.
On January 1, 2009, a private drinking water well in Dimrock, Pennsylvania, exploded as a result of methane gas migration from a nearby natural gas drilling operation. Residents reported foul-smelling tap water the color of apple cider, and spills of fracking liquids and drilling mud leached into aquatic habitats resulting in fish kills (Federman, 2010). In Pavillion, Wyoming, residents are experiencing similar effects. These people have had their lives permanently contaminated by fracking. Their once-pristine rural communities are now cesspits for the toxic wastes of the natural gas industry.
The myth of clean natural gas joins a host of other fossil fuel industry lies like clean coal and safe offshore oil drilling. The industry hopes that if it tells a lie often enough people will believe it, and unfortunately their strategy works. In the absence of oversight and public awareness they are free to carry out their dirty deeds in relative obscurity.
The other big lie we get from the fossil fuel industry is that it is the most economical way to meet our energy needs. The lie is reinforced by our electric bills that tell us that coal-fired or gas-fired electricity costs pennies per kilowatt hour. We are told that renewables such as solar and wind cost at least twice as much. But reality isn’t as simple as the math on our electric bills. Fossil fuels are first subsidized by tax dollars, and when all of the health and environmental costs, such as increased rates of asthma in children, ruined water supplies and decapitated mountains in Appalachia, are added up the clean energies of wind and solar are actually cheaper than fossil fuels, much cheaper. In reality, we are paying the fossil fuel industry with our tax dollars, ecosystems and health, for the privilege of lining their pockets.
Write a letter, a real letter not an email, to your Representatives and Senators and tell them its time for them to represent the interests of people and the environment, rather than the interests of the corrupt fossil fuel industry. Enlighten them about the economic and environmental realities of fossil fuel. Let them know that you know the truth and that all the efforts of industry to hide that truth were in vain. Perhaps in this election cycle, with their asses on the line, they might listen. It's worth a shot.
Colborn, T., Kwiatkowski, C., Schultz, K., & Bachran, M. (2011). Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective. International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment.
Federman, A. (2010). TO DRILL OR NOT TO DRILL. (Cover story). [Article]. Earth Island Journal, 25(1), 34-39.