Damning evidence about the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale gas continues to pile up. And the process is acquiring more enemies with big guns, the latest being the Sierra Club.
In its July-August 2012 issue of SIERRA magazine, the organization explains in detail the reasons for its hardening stand. At first the Sierra Club took a fairly hopeful wait-and-see attitude, based on the fact that shale gas burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels.
But then the evidence started piling up that the damage done before the fuel is burned more than offsets its clean burning. In fact, fracked shale gas is starting to look like the dirtiest fossil fuel, particularly in terms of climate change.
Perhaps most damning, recent in-depth studies of fracked wells by scientists at Cornell University, the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all show that large amounts of raw methane leak into the atmosphere during drilling. One study asserts that nearly 8 percent of fracked methane can leak into the atmosphere.
Methane is some 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas.
Then there is the fact that for every new shale well, millions of gallons of water laced with poisonous chemicals are pumped into the ground under explosive pressure. Furthermore the whole process requires what the Sierra Club describes as "a vast industrial architecture" to drill, process and move the gas from the wells to consumers.
That "architecture" not only uses vast amounts of energy but is extremely disruptive to the human communities in its vicinity.
The Sierra article is titled "Fractured Lives" and details what has happened to Washington County, Penn. This previously bucolic landscape of productive farms and woodlands is now blighted with all the following:
"Drilling rigs, dark green condensate tanks, fields of iron conduits lumped with hissing valves, and long, flat rectangles carved into hilltops like overgrown swimming pools, brimming with umber wastewater. Tall metal methane flaring stacks periodically fill the night with fiery glares and jet engine roars. Roadbeds of crushed rock, guarded by 'No Trespassing' signs, lie like fresh sutures across hayfields, deer trails and backyards, admitting fleets of tanker trucks to the wellheads ..."
But much worse is the evidence of truly life-destroying chemical contamination of the air, water and soil. Farmers complain of stillborn and deformed calves, many residents have had their well water turn murky and undrinkable, and homeowners near the massive gas compressor stations are suffering respiratory ailments.
In the tiny Washington County village of Rea, for example, residents are suffering eye-watering fumes, poisoned drinking water, "frack rash," asthma, diarrhea, sore throats and joint pain. Tests of water from one resident's faucets reveal the presence of strontium, benzene and other toxins matching the fracking compounds used in the area.
Among other examples are Chris and Stephanie Hallowich, who saw their dream home become surrounded by fracked wells, a processing plant, a compressor station, pipelines, a three-acre holding pond, and a gravel road with heavy truck traffic. Then when carcinogenic volatile organic compounds were found in their well and the air around their house, they sued.
The gas company settled the Hallowich suit and bought their property, but on the condition that the family submit to a gag order.
On top of all this, the Sierra article notes that the industry's claim of a 100-year supply of shale gas may be bogus. Their claim includes not just known recoverable reserves, but also estimates of reserves variously termed "probable," "possible" and "speculative."
The U. S. Energy Information Administration says "proven reserves" will yield an 11-year supply, and "probable" reserves would add another 10 years.
It seems to me it would be far better to focus on energy sources that have an unlimited timeline, are environmentally friendly, and ruin no lives. These are first and foremost conservation, then wind, solar and other relatively clean technologies.
Conservation in the form of energy efficiency is the easiest and perhaps most neglected. It requires much greater mandated efficiency standards for our vehicles, buildings and homes.
But these can be met because the technology is there. They will be met when all companies have the level playing field of needing to meet the same higher requirements.
- "What Do We Really Want?" appears on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Mary Boland is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother, and a longtime resident of Carbondale. Follow her on twitter@grannyboland.