Saturday, November 5, 2011

David Brooks and Fracking: Marketplace Trumps Environment

On November 3, 2011, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Shale Gas Revolution.”  Brooks begins this argument for large-scale fracking by championing George P. Mitchell, who “fought through waves of skepticism and opposition to extract natural gas from shale.”  Having softened his readers by appealing to their pride in American individualism and ingenuity with this reference to one of the inventors of the process of hydraulic fracturing, Brooks boldly claims that “the fracking innovation is game-changing.  It transforms the energy marketplace.”

However, since Brooks is not among those many Republicans who are in denial about global warming, he must take pains to assure us that natural gas “is the cleanest of the fossil fuels” and that enabling more fracking operations will provide “hundreds of thousands of new jobs.”   In other words, he views fracking as a  panacea for much of America’s present difficulties, and Brooks’ leaves no doubt about the importance of extracting natural gas from our shale deposits: “It would be a crime if we squandered this blessing,” he writes in his concluding sentence.

But, I get ahead of myself and of Brooks’ argument.  Before this conclusion, he is compelled to acknowledge today’s acrimonious political climate.   In his words, “the U.S. is polarized between ‘drill, baby, drill’ conservatives, who seem suspicious of most regulation, and some environmentalists, who seem to regard fossil fuels as morally corrupt and imagine we can switch to wind and solar overnight.”  Although this statement appears to offer a balanced assessment of the two sides, I suggest that a closer reading reveals a subtly biased skewing.

Brooks’ Republican Heart [read my post, “David Brooks and Dr. Strangelove,” July 26, 2011], through careful word choice, makes the conservatives seem more reasonable and the (liberal) environmentalists more radical.   In truth, however, those “‘drill, baby, drill’ conservatives” are hardly so accommodating as to be “suspicious of most regulation;” they reflexively rail against any and all regulation.   Meanwhile, nobody is saying that fossil fuels are “morally corrupt.”  They are saying that the continued reliance on fossil fuels for energy is endangering our world and contributing enormously to global warming, and we need to find other solutions before we pass the tipping point.

The proponents for oil and gas drilling may be greedy and complacent, but not “morally corrupt.”   This term is normally bandied about by members of the religious right, not the progressive left or, in Brooks’ words “some environmentalists.”  If the progressive left were to use the term “moral corruption,” their most likely target would be the 1% that our various Occupy Wall Street groups are bringing to the forefront of our nation’s awareness.   Interestingly, even a more conservative commentator like Jim Cramer of CNBC admitted enormous corruption among those in control of our financial system (in an August 21, 2008 video that is no longer viewable).   Another target might be Alan Greenspan, and after reading Chapter 2 of Matt Taibbi’s book, Griftopia, I can hardly see Greenspan as anything other than “morally corrupt.”   Then, of course, among the biggest targets are Bush and Cheney, who got us into a deadly war through deception and lies--the height of moral corruption.

But, again, I diverge from the topic of hydraulic fracturing. Fracking has poisoned water supplies, killed livestock where its toxic chemicals have percolated to the surface, destabilized the landscape, created more greenhouse emissions than burning coal, and undermined investment in renewable technologies.   As a concession to its recorded dangers (think of those surreal videos of flaming tap water), Brooks seems to blame a few bad apples. He bemoans the fact that “rogue companies have screwed up and there have been instances of contamination,” and that “a few sloppy companies could discredit the whole sector.”

Igniting Kitchen Tap Water Contaminated with Fracking Fluids

Haven’t we heard this argument before? “A few sloppy companies” is the corporate equivalent of “a few bad apples,” the words used to isolate the lowly soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq from the larger military system.  Today we remember the privates and specialists who were sentenced, Lynndie England and Charles Graner, but forget the colonels and generals, their military superiors who remained insulated.

But when it comes to oil drilling, there are no “rogue companies,” as Brooks would have us believe, unless maybe all the drilling companies are “rogue!” After all, who were the “rogue companies,” the “few sloppy companies” responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?    British Petroleum, which is the fourth largest corporation of any sort in the world today? Transocean Ltd., owner of the world’s largest fleet of offshore deepwater drilling rigs?    Halliburton, the world’s second largest oilfield services corporation?  You can’t get any bigger that this.

These are the “generals” of the oil production system, and clearly not even they can be trusted to do their job properly.   Maybe the entire oil extraction industry is “rogue.” It is very possible that they all are “sloppy companies” who cut corners in order to save money. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the report issued by the White House oil spill commission stated that "the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur." It concluded that BP, Transocean and Halliburton all were responsible, albeit in different ways.

Since the presence of major corporations such as BP and Halliburton is hardly a guarantee of safe practices, David Brooks’ implication that a very few “rogue companies” are to blame for past fracking accidents should not assuage the public’s distrust of the companies or of the fracking process and its environmental hazards.   To put it as simply as possible, a region that loses its safe water supply has lost its viability.

There are so many environmental and health hazards to fracking, and David Brooks doesn’t so much as allude to any of them. Besides the toxic mix of chemicals injected into the earth along with the water [see my post, “Our Water and Fracking,” Sunday, February 6, 2011], shale deposits are rich in radium, so the fracking fluids will also absorb and leak uranium;  they also will leak radon that is present in the shale;  then, too, carbon dioxide and methane emissions for natural gas is claimed to be at least as dangerous as that for coal (the dirtiest of the fossil fuels).  In fact, because carbon dioxide emissions from the production of shale oil and shale gas are so high, the European Union is warning against any oil shale development.

And finally, there is the water itself.   Fracking uses enormous quantities of fresh water, usually taken from nearby streams, ponds and rivers. With every well fracked, 4 to 9 million gallons of water are injected into the ground (along with a toxic mix of chemicals). Since a single well can be fracked up to 12 separate times, it could consume 100 million gallons of fresh water in its lifetime.   An average person drinks ca. 79,000 gallons of water in a lifetime. Therefore, the 100 million gallons of freshwater that a single well could consume over its operational life would supply a lifetime of water to 5,050 people.  Multiply this by the 400,000 new fracking wells that are planned in the next decade, and we could supply a lifetime of water to over 2.02 billion people.

Which, I ask, is the better use of our diminishing supply of this crucial resource? Do we continue to waste precious resources on non-renewable forms of energy, or do we work towards a renewable energy future?

As an antidote to David Brooks’ flawed examination of fracking as a way to mine natural gas from our shale deposits, watch the very brief video trailer from Gasland, the movie by Josh Fox.   Also, watch the video titled “Fracking Hell: The Untold Story,” a report on our Marcellus shale produced by Earth Focus, a British ecology group.   Only then should you make up your mind about which direction would be the wisest to embrace.

This brief appendix summarizes a random sampling of the hundreds of accidents that have occurred as a result of fracking in America. These examples came from the study by Craig Michaels, "Fractured Communities: Case Studies of the Environmental Impacts of Industrial Gas Drilling," Riverkeeper, September 2010, which one can download as a pdf document.

1). On June 3, 2010, improper well control procedures led to a gas well blowout in Clearfield County, PA, leading to the release of nearly a million gallons of toxic wastewater that polluted two high quality waters, the Alex Branch and the Little Laurel Run . The company, EOG Resources, from Midland, TX, has been on Fortune’s list of 100 best companies to work for for five consecutive years.

2). On April 1, 2010, a tank and an open pit containing fracking fluid caught fire in Hopewell Township, PA, shooting flames at least 100 feet high. For days earlier, residents complained of foul odors and a 480-acre farm suffered soil and water contamination. The company, Atlas Energy, has since become Chevron-Atlas Energy, Inc. with a merger in February, 2011.

3). On December 15, 2007, fracking in the Clinton sandstone formation caused natural gas to migrate through fractures and into a private house in Bainbridge, OH, causing a major explosion inside the house. The drilling also led to extensive water contamination in the region. The company, Ohio Valley Energy Systems, is part of Hoovers (a D&B Company)

Another Example of Polluted Water Igniting
4). In January, 2009, methane gas was migrating to the surface in Dimock, PA. One water well exploded, and at least nine other wells reported elevated levels of methane, four of these with a threat of explosion. Elsewhere, the same company was cited for spills that polluted a wetland and caused a fish kill in Stevens Creek.  The same company also trucked 44,000 barrels of wastewater to a facility in the suburbs of Philadlphia, and this water was discharged into a creek that provided drinking water to 17 municipalities serving over 300,000 residents.  The company, Cabot Oil & Gas, is based in Houston, TX. On Dimock, see also this revealing video at the bottom of the 4th page of the Vanity Fair article, "A Colossal Fracking Mess."

5). In 2010, in Louisiana, seventeen head of cattle died a painful death, bellowing, bleeding and foaming at the mouth after drinking water that had flowed from a natural gas well.  The company, Chesapeake Energy, based in Oklahoma City OK, is the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States.  Chesapeake Energy also caused this fracking fluid spill in Bradford County, PA.

6).  Between June and July, 2009, the city of Cleburne, TX suffered at least seven earthquakes; it had not registered an earthquake ever before in its 142-year history. The cause has been linked to the injection of wastewater from fracking operations. The company, again, was Chesapeake Energy.

Containers of Fracking Fluid

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