Natural gas. Even its name sets it up as an alternative to petroleum, despite the fact that the latter is also “natural.” For years now, everyone from oil tycoon-turned-wind magnate T. Boone Pickens to former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope have been touting natural gas as a clean “bridge fuel” that will tide us over as we shift to renewable energy. As Earth Island Journal reporter Adam Federman illustrated in his piece "To Drill or Not to Drill" (Spring 2010), that sort of thinking only really pencils out if the extraction of the gas doesn't contaminate water, soil and air in the meantime.
As Federman and now several other journalists have reported, the greatest stores of natural gas in this country are trapped as what’s called “shale gas” in large underground rock formations. Getting to the gas requires a process called hydraulic fracturing, invented by, guess who? Halliburton. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” requires shooting a cocktail of chemicals into a bore hole at high pressure in order to crack the shale and release the gas. When the gas is released, it can seep into the air, soil and groundwater sources, as can the fracking chemicals. And then all of a sudden the water goes brown and bubbly and people start getting strangely sick or, worse, dying.
This month, the issue goes prime time on HBO with the documentary GasLand. In it, director Josh Fox, whose 19 acres of Pennsylvania forest sit on a part of the Marcellus Shale, tells viewers about growing up near a stream, playing the banjo and how, one day, a local gas company offered him about $100,000 for the rights to drill for shale gas on his property. That prompted Fox to look into the issue, and what he found, and documented, was rather horrific. Thanks to the timeliness of the issue, and Fox's personal stake in the outcome, the director has gotten a huge amount of attention for his work--including a write-up in the New York Times and an appearance on The Daily Show--raising awareness far beyond the residents most directly affected by the drilling.
In parts of Pennsylvania, shale gas drilling has been going full steam ahead for a few years now. The town of Dimock, Penn. is the example most journalists have been pointing to, and Fox goes there as well, interviewing families whose water has turned brown, but who have been told by the gas guys that it’s safe to drink. In one segment, Fox shows family after family saying, “We told them, if it’s safe to drink, then let me get you a glass and see you drink it, and they wouldn’t drink it!”
Then he finds the people whose water is so full of natural gas, they can light it on fire, straight from the tap. As one man nearly singes his eyebrows off with a fireball from his faucet, Fox looks at the camera in disbelief. He and the man had been almost excited about the fire–Fox had been hoping to catch it on camera and his interview subject wanted it documented as well–but that excitement soon turns to sober reality. “That’s actually sort of scary,” Fox says. “Really scary. Disgusting.”
From Pennsylvania Fox makes his way through Texas and the Barnett Shale region, stopping to interview the mayor of Dish, Texas (so named in order to get everyone in town free cable--welcome to Texas), who has been at the forefront of the fight against natural gas drilling in Texas. In nearby Fortworth, although the public has long been supportive (and employed by) the oil and gas industries, cases linking natural gas drilling to health concerns have begun to crop up, and scientists are linking off-the-charts benzene levels in the air to shale gas drilling in the region. (Benzene is a known carcinogen.)
Fox travels next to Sublette County, Colorado, which should stand as a cautionary tale to the states currently evaluating shale gas drilling. On land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, hundreds of wells have been sited, compliments of Dick Cheney, who urged the BLM to open up its lands (which are public lands, mind you) to natural gas exploration. There we see streams bubbling with natural gas, farmers complaining of their livelihoods being ruined by contaminated soil and water, and we meet legendary environmentalist and toxicity expert Dr. Theo Colborn, who explains how the combination of natural gas and fracking chemicals in the water and the air is giving people permanent brain damage.
If it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with Fox who, as a hipster who has apparently inherited a sweet little farm near the Delaware River from his hippy parents, doesn’t seem to be in dire straits, it’s easy to have your heart broken by the woman who tears up while explaining her chronic pain, dizziness and headaches, or the people talking about how they can no longer taste or smell. It’s also shocking that with all this evidence out there, anyone is considering allowing this drilling to take place around water sources that supply drinking water to over 15 million people, including the residents of New York City.
Perhaps more shocking is the fact that so many of the landowners are willing to sign over drilling rights without any information about what might happen.
Fox doesn't do a great job explaining the motivation there, instead focusing his camera on landowners that happily signed leases at one point but are now angry at consequences and risks they feel were hidden from them. In Federman's report, he noted that several farmers are signing leases simply because they're broke and the recession isn't helping. In some cases, even anti-drilling activists are considering signing.
Joyce Stone, a Dimock resident who has been leading the charge against drilling there, told Federman that after holding out for years, she signed a lease in October 2008. "The company can drill underneath her land, but not on it," Federman wrote. "She’ll avoid the intrusion and impact of having a well pad on her property, but the risk to her water remains. She owns 12 acres and lives on social security, about $10,000 a year. She needed the money. At the same time, all of the landowners around her had leased their land and Stone felt that even if she refused, there was no guarantee that her land and water would be protected. She also believes that there is an environmental case to be made for natural gas – it burns 50 percent cleaner than coal and a third cleaner than petroleum."
In fact, many in the environmental community are pro natural gas drilling, including shale gas drilling, because natural gas is a lower emission energy source than oil or coal. It is true that natural gas burns cleaner than petroleum, “only” 117,000 pounds of CO2 per billion Btu, versus oil’s 164,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per billion Btu. Where it really makes a difference is in nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulates; the first two are key components of acid rain, so the fact that burning natural gas emits 80-90 percent less NO and SO2 is a big deal, and particulates have been linked to asthma and all sorts of other respiratory diseases, so reducing the amount of them in the air is a good thing.
For the farmers along the Upper Delaware River in New York State, Federman recently pointed out, the only salvation lies in some sort of government protection of the river. Although named an endangered river by International Rivers recently, largely because it is surrounded by an area of New York in which over 25 percent of residents have already signed gas drilling leases, the Upper Delaware is still not protected by the government. And thanks to the 2005 Energy Act, which contains what has come to be known as “The Halliburton Loophole,” it won’t be, unless the EPA steps in soon. Natural gas drilling is exempt from the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which means that not only can natural gas companies dump waste without fear of regulatory action, but they can also use “proprietary” chemicals in the fracking process and not tell anyone what they are.
Thanks in large part to the work done by a handful of journalists and angry residents over the past couple of years, the EPA is finally looking into fracking more seriously. In fact, they’re looking into it so comprehensively the energy companies are getting worried. It’s worth noting here that all the big oil guys have a big stake in natural gas drilling, and many of them have contractual loopholes with the smaller companies that own the gas drilling leases that if fracking is taken off the table as a legitimate drilling process, they’re out. “A federal study of hydraulic fracturing (Fracking) set to begin this spring is expected to provide the most expansive look yet at how the natural gas drilling process can affect drinking water supplies, according to interviews with EPA officials and a set of documents outlining the scope of the project, “ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten wrote recently about the EPA’s fracking study. “The research will take a substantial step beyond previous studies and focus on how a broad range of ancillary activity - not just the act of injecting fluids under pressure - may affect drinking water quality.”
The EPA’s move to more closely study fracking will not only affect what happens here, but could influence the natural gas industry worldwide, according to Lustgarten. “The agency’s conclusions could have wide-ranging effects,” he wrote. “Last month President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia said he would curtail natural gas production by the state company Gazprom until the study is completed. In part that’s because Medvedev isn’t sure there will be a viable market for Russian gas if the U.S. develops its domestic reserves, and because he believes that the regulations that could result from the EPA study could determine whether the U.S. drills its own gas, or imports it from overseas.”
Meanwhile, the energy companies are sticking to their guns, claiming that fracking is safe and that natural gas drilling can be considered a tolerable “managed risk” where environmental impacts are concerned. In a letter to the EPA about its intentions, Ben Wallace, chief operating officer of Penneco Oil Co., wrote: “The clear historical record shows that hydraulic fracturing has been employed for decades successfully without incident. We are concerned that bureaucratic machinations have caused the EPA to hypothesize a problem and that EPA is now seeking research to justify a solution to a nonexistent problem.”
Watch GasLand this month and see if you think he’s got a leg to stand on.