Nel's New Day

February 19, 2013

Fracking: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

After waiting for months, New York activists have learned that the decision about whether to lift the state’s moratorium on fracking has been further delayed because the public health review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing has not been completed. The review of respiratory diseases, accidents and injuries, and birth outcomes is monumental because it is the first comprehensive studies of fracking health impacts at either state or federal level.

At the same time that officials are considering the serious health effects of fracking, President Obama may appoint pro-fracking Ernest Moniz to head the Department of Energy. Moniz has promoted natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to lower carbon pollution while new innovative forms of energy are being developed. Almost two years ago, he told the Senate Energy committee that water and air pollution risks associated fracking were “challenging but manageable.”

Fracking gets natural gas out of rock formations by bombing them with chemical-loaded fluid, leaving behind foul water, the water that goes to crops and animals that humans consume. But there’s another food/fracking connection. Because cheap synthetic nitrogen fertilizer require natural gas to be synthesized, an increasing amount of this fertilizer will come from fracked natural gas. Farmers will then become powerful allies in overriding regulations and fighting back opposition to fracking.

During the past decade, the U.S. fertilizer industry was offshored to places like Trinidad and Tobago, but the supply of natural gas there is disappearing. Fracking in the U.S. has made natural gas here abundant, driving prices drastically down, 75 percent less than in 2008. Fertilizer prices remain high because of high crop prices so fertilizer companies have hit a bonanza.

At the same time, taxpayers are paying for corporation profits. In Iowa, for example, huge fertilizer industries received over $70 million in tax incentives from Iowa and $161 million in property taxes rebates from the county where it is located. Another company is investing $1.2 billion to build a nitrogen plant in North Dakota. The company can sell a ton of anhydrous ammonia for $800, which costs about $82 worth of natural gas.

While taxpayers at local, state, and national levels pay these corporations to make this money, they taxpayers receive environmental liabilities from excess nitrogen seeping into streams and rivers that feed a massive algae bloom that erases sea life; emissions of nitrous oxide, 300 times more potent than carbon; and the elimination of organic matter in soil.

Practical farming could prevent this destruction. Adding “small grain” (oats or wheat) plus nitrogen-fixing cover crops, farmers can drop their nitrogen needs up to 80 percent. Corn is the most nitrogen-intensive among major field crops; crop rotation can solve most of their problems. But Big Ag is becoming as powerful as Big Oil, and the American Farm Bureau Federation wants fracking.

All over the country, people are screaming about the need for fracking because we’re short on fuel. But prices are too low here for the greedy corporations so gas companies want authorization from the Department of Energy to export more of it overseas. They already have permission to export the gas to the nation’s free trade partners, but these aren’t major potential customers.

Wanting bigger profits, companies need permission to sell the gas to such non-free trade countries as South Korea, India, China, and Japan. Sixteen gas producers are working to get this permission, and companies are getting permits to build huge facilities to convert the gas to liquid by chilling it to -260 degrees F. to ship it overseas. Thus far, just one state, Pennsylvania, has about 6,000 wells. Permission for exporting could build that number to 50,000 wells.

If the agency approves the permits, gas equal to over one-fourth of current U.S. consumption will leave the country. A year-old study published by the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration published in January 2012 concluded that domestic natural gas prices would rise dramatically if the U.S. began exporting.

In North Dakota “oil patch” boom towns, fracking has caused a spike in serious injuries and health problems—burns from hot water, hands and fingers crushed by steel tongs, injuries from whipsawing chains, bodies brought in from accidents on roads where truck drivers know that time is money. The impact of working outside in freezing weather, emotional isolation, poor nutrition, drug use, and heavy drinking combines with highly increased numbers of rapes, sexual assaults, and domestic violence.

Both workers and local residents suffer from the toxins related to oil and gas extraction. Doctors in Pennsylvania are now under a “gag rule” that keeps them from telling their patients about the chemicals that make them sick. A large number of workers lack health insurance, causing local hospitals and government providers to absorb the enormous costs from uncompensated treatment. The debt in just one hospital increased 2,000 percent to $1.2 million in five years.

If workers and residents survive the injuries, their health still isn’t safe. A byproduct of fracking is silica dust which, if inhaled, can cause lung inflammation leading to silicosis, an incurable respiratory condition known as silicosis. Or the inflammation can cause lung cancer, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, kidney disease, and autoimmune conditions. The situation is reminiscent of workers with health problems related to asbestos and coal exposure.

Fracking causes even more impacts:

Methane: Natural gas is a significant contributor to global warming pollution; scientists report alarmingly high methane emissions from these fields.  

Water Pollution: Methane released during fracking also ends up in the water. That’s how people living near gas drilling operations can light their tap water on fire. And companies aren’t required to inform people about all the chemicals used in their fracking process. Thanks to Dick Cheney, fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Water Consumption: Using between 2 million and 13 million gallons of water to frack a single well plus more to drill the well, fracking will make water shortages occur more rapidly than the crisis predicted by 2030. Most of this water is either not recovered or unfit for use, requiring disposal in an underground injection well. Texas and Pennsylvania already have water shortages.

Trucks: Drilling and fracking just one well can require 1,000 truck trips, causing pollution, accidents, wear and tear on infrastructure, and big bills for taxpayers.

Economic Fallout: Taxes pay for repair to the infrastructure and the health issues of uninsured workers. Beyond that taxpayers lose personal insurance. The Huffington Post reported, “Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. has become the first major insurance company to say it won’t cover damage related to a gas drilling process that blasts chemical-laden water deep into the ground.” Their memo said, “Risks involved with hydraulic fracturing are now prohibited for General Liability, Commercial Auto, Motor Truck Cargo, Auto Physical Damage and Public Auto (insurance) coverage.”

The cost doesn’t end with the health and insurance issues. Studies have begun to show a link between pollution, including gas, and crime.

Therefore huge corporations want to make huge profits selling gas offshore and driving United States prices up while destroying the environment and costing taxpayers a fortune. After the corporations have finished raping the land, the short-term jobs will disappear along with all the farming, tourism, dairy, and other jobs that vanished because of fracking. As Tish O’Dell, co-founder of the Cleveland-area group Mothers Against Drilling in Our Neighborhoods, said,

“If water is contaminated and fish die, what are the fishermen going to do? If you have parks where people go for peace and quiet, what happens when you turn it into an industrial landscape? If you have an organic dairy and the soil is polluted, what does that mean? These are all valid questions.”

And all this because the conservatives lie to the people about fuel and energy.

1 Comment »

  1. How is it, in a country that brags about its freedoms, especially the freedom of speech, we allow rich companies to gag potential critics? If something is dangerous how in hell is it acceptable not to reveal it or let anyone else talk about it and nobody yells about it? So many of the food factories all get to silence their critics. There’s something seriously wrong here.


    Comment by Pat Brown — February 19, 2013 @ 9:05 PM | Reply

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