The controversial practice of fracking is just something that happens in the woods of Pennsylvania or the empty stretches of the Mountain West, right? … Right? Think again. Fracking, once a purely rural phenomenon, may be coming to a city or suburb near you.
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance
The practice of using thousand of gallons of water mixed with sand and caustic chemicals to shatter underground shale formations (the technical term is hydraulic fracturing) first gained notoriety in the dairy country of Pennsylvania and upstate New York. In addition to concerns about methane contamination of their water wells or the disposal of briny, slightly radioactive fracking wastewater, rural folks worried about how the natural gas rush was ruining their bucolic way of life . The drilling came with strange smells, noise pollution, light pollution from the illuminated well pads, and a dramatic increase in large truck traffic on backcountry roads. Deer hunters in Pennsylvania complained that drilling operations were ruining their autumn pastime. In Wyoming — a place famous for its long distance vistas — measurements of ground level ozone have been worse than smoggy Los Angeles due to the massive amounts of gas drilling. As an impressive investigative series on fracking by NPR demonstrated, many people who live next to fracking wells find the co-existence too close for comfort.
Now imagine those concerns translated to suburban or urban areas with much higher population densities. Geologic formations don’t respect zoning ordinances, and some significant fossil fuel deposits are located underneath major cities. Parts of Cleveland sit above the gas reserves of the Devonian Shale, while Buffalo lies on top of the Utica Shale and Little Rock above the Fayetteville Shale. Oil and gas firms are, naturally, eager to tap into those deposits — and that’s setting up a showdown with city residents who aren’t enthusiastic about having a drilling pad for a neighbor.
See, for example, the turmoil in Los Angeles County, where a company called PXP is hoping to expand its fracking operations at the Inglewood oil field. The site isn’t anything like the rustic woodlands of Pennsylvania. Located in an incorporated area between Culver City, Baldwin Hills, and View Park, the 1,100-acre spread is the largest urban oil field in the US. More than one million people live within five miles of the hundreds of wells there. The field’s productivity had been on a steady decline until PXP started using fracking methods around 2003 to get at the estimated 50 percent of petroleum reserves that are inaccessible through more conventional drilling methods.
The practice went mostly unnoticed by area neighbors until January 10, 2006 — when a fracking accident at the Inglewood field released a cloud of toxic fumes and forced the evacuation of some residents of Baldwin Hills and Culver City. Last year, residents settled a lawsuit with PXP that, among other things, calls for closer air monitoring, noise abatement, and a reduction of the total number of wells from 600 to 500 by 2028.
But the settlement still allows for PXP to frack at least 30 new wells a year, and many neighbors remain nervous. One concerned resident is Paul Ferrazzi, a movie cameraman and Culver City resident who heads a group called Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community. When asked why he is worried about increased fracking at the Inglewood field, Ferrazzi rattled off what have become the usual criticisms of hydraulic fracturing: “ground and surface water contamination ... the use of large amounts of the precious resource of water in drought-prone California, the use of chemicals that are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and possible airborne human exposure.”
Ferrazzi has another worry that is an especially sensitive issue in California — “increased seismicity in a heavily faulted area.” A recent study has demonstrated a connection between fracking and minor earthquakes, and has fueled LA area residents’ concerns about how the Inglewood fracking could trigger a quake. The oil field is named for the Newport-Inglewood fault that bisects the area. According to FEMA, the fault is capable of generating a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. (In comparison, the last major earthquake in LA, the 1994 Northridge quake, measured 6.4 on the Ricther scale; 57 people died in that tremor, which caused about $20 billion in damage.)
A spokesperson for PXP declined to respond to Ferrazzi’s concerns, and instead directed me to the website www.inglewoodoilfield.com to learn more about the company’s plans.
Tupper Hull, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association (of which PXP is not a member) was more forthcoming. “Hydraulic fracturing is a technology that has been used in California for some 60 years,” he told me. “It’s been used principally for oil production. The technology is fundamentally no different [from gas drilling], but the scale and size can be different. In 60 years, no one has claimed or identified any environmental risk with hydraulic fracturing in California. That is the salient fact that people need to consider.”
I asked Hull about the emerging science connecting fracking with increased seismic activity, and he said: “Well, again, for 60 years this activity has been going on, and no one has ever suggested it has caused an earthquake. The fact that some [seismic] activity has taken place in some areas with entirely different geology doesn’t strike us as a compelling reason to launch some big campaign in California.”
Hull was referring to an effort by the fracking critics at Food & Water Watch to ban the practice in California, just as Vermont recently did. California officials are in the process of sifting through the various claims and counterclaims of fracking opponents and proponents. The state’s Department of Conservation is hosting workshops across California this summer to take public comment on the practice of hydraulic fracturing and to help lawmakers rewrite the state’s regulations covering the procedure.
As they reconsider the state’s fracking regulations, California officials might want to look at the experience of Fort Worth, Texas — the epicenter of urban fracking.
The city of 740,000 people lies above the Barnett Shale, which some experts have called the largest onshore natural gas field in the United States. Today the city is home to at least 1,400 natural gas wells; drilling companies have received permits for another 498 wells that are not yet in operation. Texas, of course, is the fossil fuel industry’s home base. But even there, it seems, people like their drilling wells at a comfortable distance, and gas rush has led to a surprising backlash.
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance
“What was once a very nice town, much quieter and more easy going than Dallas, has become an industrial town, and it’s driving people away in droves,” said Don Young, a life-long resident who founded a group called Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance. When he’s not agitating against the gas companies, Young, 60, makes stained glass windows for churches. “Living in Fort Worth has become intolerable. This is a big, heavy industrial operation. There’s no nice way to do it. There’s no way to drill safely, in my opinion, especially in the middle of a city.”
Young says he has two main worries about the gas boom: the way in which the network of drilling pads, pipelines and compressor stations have impacted Fort Worth’s limited amounts of open space, and drilling’s impact on air quality. Fort Worth has never been known for its pristine air — the larger Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area routinely ranks as one of the American Lung Association’s worst cities for ground level ozone (or smog). Last year ozone levels in the region spiked dramatically, and there were more than 30 days when the area violated federal ozone standards. Fort Worth also has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the state; about 18 percent of children there suffer from the chronic ailment. Scientists have demonstrated clear links between ozone levels and asthma rates.
Another Fort Worth critic of the gas rush, Gary Hogan, a former member of the city’s Gas Drilling Task Force, was spurred to anti-fracking activism after a well was drilled 600 feet behind his home. Hogan calls Fort Worth “an urban experiment in gas drilling” and says one of his biggest worries is how to protect public safety amid so many industrial sites. “I will never believe that doing this gas drilling in a dense urban environment — with all the infrastructure and risk factors it comes with, the potential for explosions in neighborhoods — is safe,” he said.
Fort Worth’s drilling regulations mandate that well pads be at least 600 feet from homes. But drilling companies can apply for a variety of waivers, and Hogan says some wells are as close as 200 or 300 feet from people’s houses. “The setbacks are totally ridiculous,” Hogan said.
Similar fears about protecting public safety were a driving force behind Pittsburgh’s 2010 ordinance banning fracking in the city limits. “Our firefighters are not trained to deal with a [gas] well fire,” former Pittsburg City Councilman Doug Shields, who sponsored the fracking moratorium ordinance, told me in an interview earlier this year for a separate story. “The mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, had been a big supporter of [the gas industry.] When I introduced the legislation, he issued a statement saying the city would prepare for pollution, well fires, and other disasters. My response was, ‘I’d rather not.’”
Fort Worth fracking opponents say that other communities should beware of gas companies who come into a city promising a big payday. Few homeowners cash out Beverly Hillbillies-style, they warn, especially when gas prices are at record lows. “We were sold a bill of goods,” Hogan said. “There is no money in this for people who live on residential lots. There is no reason to get involved with this right now anyway, because the return on what you are going to make is nothing.”
Before hanging up the phone, he told me: “People need to ask themselves: Do you really want to end up with a gas well behind your house?’ Because I know what it’s like. It’s not worth it to sacrifice your neighborhood. You really don’t want to do this.”