Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) has become a big issue this past year, at least for New Yorkers, and we all ought to be happy that now-ex-Governor Patterson banned high-volume fracking in the state at least until July, 2011. After all, the Marcellus Shale, which indeed contains gas, also holds much of our drinking water, and New Yorkers have always been blessed with some of the best tasting water straight from the taps. Almost everybody I know who patronizes the City’s restaurants asks for tap water rather than bottled when the waiter first comes around.
After July 2011, that may no longer be the case if the big oil, gas and drilling companies have their way. So, here’s what fracking does and how it does it.
Oil and gas companies drill into the shale substrate (not merely vertically, but to great distances horizontally) and then inject a toxic chemical cocktail at great pressure into the ground. The pressure creates fissures in the reservoir rock formations and the liquid also carries “propants,” solid material like sand and ceramic particulates that then keep the fissures open, enabling the gas to escape and be collected.
These fissures in themselves can cause problems, as happened in Cleburne, TX in June of 2009. Because of fracking, the town experienced seismic tremors--2.8 on the Richter Scale--the first ever in the town’s 140-year history. As james Northrup, a veteran of the oil and gas industry, noted in a video on fracking, once the pressurized injecting begins, fracking is like “exploding a bomb underneath the ground...[and] the explosive power is...equivalent to a really large bomb.”
Far worse, however, than the weakening of the earth’s substrate, are the polluting effects of the chemicals used in fracking, which brings us back to that delicious tap-water that we take for granted as New Yorkers. A large number of aquifers that supply our drinking water will become contaminated by the fracking fluids, as occurred in Dimock, PA in 2009. 1
The exact recipe of fracking chemicals is kept secret by the various companies. They claim their formulas are proprietary intellectual property. However, in the following two paragraphs, I will name just a few of the most common of these.
Diesel fuel is used in fracking to dissolve other chemicals and hold them in suspension. Among the components of diesel fuel are toluene, xylene, and benzene. Toluene is a water-insoluble hydrocarbon and a common solvent that smells like paint thinner; if inhaled, it can cause weakness, memory loss, loss of hearing and color vision, severe neurological harm, and at higher levels, death. Xylene is a colorless hydrocarbon isomer, also used as a solvent, and is highly flammable; when inhaled, it produces intoxication, eye and skin irritation, loss of muscle coordination, liver and kidney damage, and lung problems. Benzene, also an industrial solvent, is colorless, highly flammable, and a known carcinogen.
Other commonly used chemicals are Formaldehyde, N, n-Dimethyl formamide, and Ethylene glycol. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic and volatile organic compound often used as a disinfectant that kills most bacteria and fungi; because it is also used in the resins of construction materials, maybe we remember it as the culprit permeating the FEMA construction trailers after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and the Iowa floods of 2008, making those trailers unusable; formaldehyde can cause eye and mucous membrane irritation, headaches, asthmatic symptoms and, at higher levels, pulmonary failure. N, n-Dimethyl formamide is an organic compound often used in acrylic and plastic production and has been linked to human cancer and birth defects. Ethylene glycol we all know as anti-freeze and we all have heard stories of dogs and cats lapping it up from under a car and dying; because it tastes so sweet, they, and even human babies, will happily ingest large quantities it, even though it is highly toxic.
I have listed only seven chemicals. Fracking “cocktail” formulas often mix over 600 chemicals with water. Depending upon the size and scale of the area to be treated, the drilling companies may use between 1-7 million gallons of water. Since the technology of fracking was first implemented by Halliburton in 1949, nearly a half-million wells have been drilled in the United States. That’s an awful lot of water removed from human, animal, and plant consumption. I’m sure that those in the oil and gas exploration business will call me naive for worrying about water waste, but as water becomes an ever more precious resource in today’s world, this does not sound like its best use....and then there’s that glass of tap water we ordered in the restaurant: after July 2011, that water could become tainted by various carcinogens and neurotoxins, caused by fracking leakoff into our upstate aquifers. I would encourage everyone to take action to prevent such a disaster. 2
1 In Dimock, PA gas migration into water aquifers caused one water well to explode and the residential water supply became smelly and foul-tasting, dishes and appliances corroded, horses and pets began losing hair, and several fish kills were reported. In Clearfield County, PA in June of 2010, to cite just one other example, a well blowout spread 35,000 gallons of fracking fluid into the air and forest, forcing the evacuation of several camping sites.
2 One of several sites to respond to on this matter is democracyinaction.org, and a url on the topic addressed to Governor Cuomo is http://bit.ly/NoDiesel