The furor over fracking has barely died down after reaching a peak several months ago which resulted in New York banning fracking – a ban expected to be overturned. Meanwhile, a majority of states involved in the process appear to be maintaining what amounts to a veil of secrecy over the real issues. These include advance notice of where (and when) oil drillers anticipate fracking; the precise ingredients of the chemical stew used to frack individual sites; what will be done with the wastewater; and a number of other details that add up to either environmentally permissible or totally unsustainable fracked oil and gas extraction.
One of the largest issues, and perhaps the one most difficult to pin down, is seismic activity as it relates to fracking. In many of the states near or along the Atlantic coast – that is, within the Marcellus, Devonian, Chattanooga, Conasauga and Floyd-Neal shale basins (roughly New York to Mississippi), earthquakes are so uncommon that public officials and emergency first responder agencies find it difficult to think of an earthquake as not being the result of fracking.
Set the Prospectors Free
For those living in the center of the country, earthquakes are also uncommon until one gets to Mississippi River valley. There, from the Fayetteville shale, perched across the New Madrid fault, to the Barnett shale, which is making the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas area a boomtown to rival anything California saw during the 1850 Gold Rush, oil drillers are out in droves trying to capture every ounce of oil and gas that can be coaxed out of the ground.
In their wake, ground water resources are polluted – some so severely the water is actually flammable – and so is the air. The long-term health impacts of ingesting some of the ingredients in these chemical fracking stews is incalculable, and potentially on the order of magnitude of the thalidomide baby disaster.
Fracking (or fracing) science is pretty straightforward. Drill a borehole in a promising area. Use sonar imaging to map fractures or faults below the surface (the fracture gradient), determine which ones are most exploitable, pump in water to crack the rock and add chemicals to prevent the fractures from sealing themselves naturally.
Of the nearly 500,000 active natural-gas wells across the U.S. three years ago, approximately 90 percent have been fracked to get more gas flowing. As one nonprofit public watchdog notes, by 2015 the U.S. will produce more oil and gas from unconventional methods like hydraulic fracturing (the correct term) than from more tame processes like simple drilling.
But How?... Dick Cheney…
How did fracking, which is so destructive of the natural environment, ever get a foothold in the U.S.? Like many other polluting industrial processes, it found a friend among Republicans, who traditionally ally themselves with Big Oil, Big Pharma, and multi-national corporations. In fracking’s case, the knight in greasy armor was former VP Dick Cheney, who during the Bush Administration cajoled Congress into creating the “Halliburton Exemption”, a loophole in the 2005 Energy Policy Act which blocked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
It took BP’s blowout on its Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010; which BP just recently settled the criminal charges filed against them from the 2010 Gulf oil spill. In addition to pleading guilty to 14 criminal charges, BP has agreed to pay $4 billion over five years from a case brought against them by the Justice Department in addition to $525 million over three years to settle claims with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It seems like it takes a massive cataclysmic event to remind the public that the oil and gas industry needs constant scrutiny to keep it honest.
The current fracking rage should send up more warning rockets; it might not take more than a single instance of widespread fracking along the New Madrid fault to trigger an earthquake on the scale of those during 1811 and 1812 (which were measured at 7.2 to 8.1 on the Richter Scale).
That damage was mitigated by a much smaller population and shorter, more stable brick or stone buildings. Today, an 8.1 earthquake up through the New Madrid Seismic Zone – which runs from Illinois in the north to Mississippi in the south, and from Tennessee in the east to Arkansas in the west, might be apocalyptic in nature at the precise time when the U.S. economy is struggling and its government still trying to resolve the deficit and the costs associated with the summer of 2012 drought (which is itself associated with global warming, exacerbated by methane releases not only from melting Arctic permafrost but from the almost 10 percent of methane leaking initially and over a lifetime from fracked wells).
Even Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a natural ally of the energy industry, has expressed his concern with the laxity of fracking rules from state to state. For a map of state-by-state fracking rules, from the Climate Desk via Slate, visit the interactive map. For a more comprehensive look at fracking regulations, access the following Adobe file: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/405435/fracking-disclosure-laws-by-state.pdf
An April 2012 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, via Bloomberg News shows that in the three decades prior to the 21st century, the number of earthquakes rose from 21 in 2000, to 50 in 2009, to 87 in 2010, and to 134 in 2011. To this writer, the evidence seems conclusive.