Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, has been used since the 1940s. The purpose is to fracture the shale, allowing the natural gas, or oil, to flow more freely up to the wellhead. The original vertical fracking was much less damaging than is today's method of horizontal fracking, where the well is first drilled vertically, then the drill bit is turned to drill horizontally into the rock formation.
A solution of from 3 to 8 million gallons of water per well, 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of chemicals, and silica (sand) in an amount equal to about 10 percent of the total solution, is injected under very high pressure, about 13,500 pounds per square inch. This process can be repeated up to 20 times per well and the horizontal track can run up to two miles.
During fracking, the water becomes contaminated with volatile organic chemicals, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, and other known carcinogenic or otherwise toxic compounds, as well as naturally occurring radioactivity. Methane gas is also leached from the system and has been found in drinking water wells near fracking sites at concentrations 17 times greater than in normal wells.
The Bush/Cheney Energy Bill of 2005 excluded drilling companies from disclosing the exact chemicals used, from complying with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and effectively eliminated oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Chemical laden waste water, about 40 percent of the millions of gallons used in fracking, arrives at the wellhead, along with the natural gas extracted. This contaminated water must be separated from the gas and “cleaned.” Each well requires the equivalent of about 400 tanker truck loads to carry the water and other supplies to and from the well site.
Added to the ground water pollution from leaks in the well casings — estimated to occur in more than 50 percent of all wells drilled in the United States — is the air pollution caused by the process. The open pit waste water evaporation releases volatile organic compounds and other contaminates into the atmosphere. The transportation and cleaning of this highly toxic waste water produces ground level ozone, a mixture of diesel exhaust from the trucks and well site generators, creating area-wide air pollution, which has been measured in populated areas 250 miles from the well site.
There is a growing number of cases filed for drinking water contamination near fracking areas and, in 2012, OSHA, the main federal agency for enforcement of safety and health legislation, issued a warning about the increased possibility of silicosis associated with gas well workers' exposure to crystalline silica used in fracking. Silicosis is an occupational lung disease, for which there is no treatment or cure.
Fracking sand is 99 percent silica and represents 10 percent of the fracking mixture. OSHA collected air samples from 11 fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas, to determine worker exposure to silica. In 79 percent of the samples, the exposure was greater than maximum allowed limits. In 31 percent of the samples, it was more than 10 times the limits, and at least one sample was 100 times the maximum safe limit.
The petroleum industry says that horizontal fracking is the solution to U.S. energy problems. Does that mean that continued fracking is a foregone conclusion, regardless the costs to the environment and worker safety? Is there just too much money to be made by oil and gas companies to worry about long-term social consequences, as was the case with tobacco and asbestos?
The tobacco industry and the government were aware of the health dangers of cigarette smoking at least by the 1930s, but the manufacture and sale of cigarettes continues today. The profits for the tobacco companies continue. The tax revenues, upon which our government is so dependent, continue. And deaths due to cancer and other diseases caused by cigarettes continue.
The first documented cases of asbestos related deaths were in the early 1900s. The asbestos companies, and the government, officially knew about the health dangers of asbestos at least since the 1930s. Asbestos production in the U.S. continued until 2002 and, in Canada until 2011.
More than fifty countries have banned the use of asbestos, but the U.S. and Canada are not among them. We still allow the importation of asbestos, despite well-known health hazards.
There are many indications that fracking poses a health hazard. But there are no indications that either government or industry have any plans to curtail the process. Is fracking too profitable to stop or modify now? This certainly was the case with tobacco, and asbestos, and with the banks that were recently declared by our government to be too big to fail, despite their insolvency, their greed, and their incompetence and, in some cases, their criminal behavior.
Is there a pattern emerging? With tobacco and asbestos, where the policy of industry and government was to poison now and let the public pay later, the social costs in lives and dollars have been exorbitant. Is today's policy on fracking following the same pattern? Now that is a question we might want to ask our elected government officials, local, state, and federal, along with, how about allocating adequate resources to develop non-fossil fuel alternatives to our petroleum addiction.
(Norman Bernstein is a writer who lives in Havre.)