Tuesday, February 08, 2011


an essay by Michael Dennis Mooney

In recent times the rural town of Dimock, Pa. has been “fracked” by the environmental legacy of the George W. Bush administration. (Vice-President Richard Cheney was its czar of “fracking.”)

  There are sixty newly-drilled shale gas wells in Dimock.  Water from the town’s water wells is no longer potable, nor usable for anything. Water has turned brown, gaseous, and corrosive. Dimock is the “Love Canal” of the Bush-Cheney era. Values of homes and farms have collapsed.

  This is just one town In Northeast Pennsylvania. In Texas, in Oklahoma, in New Mexico, in Colorado, in Wyoming, and in Louisiana water contamination has cropped up in drilling operations, many a fearsome public health atrocity appearing in local papers. The boom in gas exploration leasing of rural acreage has been going on in more than thirty states during the past five years, many of them far less vigilant than Pennsylvania.

  That state’s Department of Environmental Protection has had to rescue the now water-deprived Dimock, at great cost, by ordering water brought in. DEP probably had never heard of the farming hamlet before its aquifer was fracked.  Methane and drilling mud leaked through faulty cement well-casings.

Fracking? you inquire. Well, “a grotesque degradation” would be a good definition for this new item in our vocab.

  “Environmental assault“ would be a good definition. “Rape of the land and the rural culture” pretty much says it. And Pennsylvania has had a long history of degradation, via coal mines, oil wells, iron-smelting, strip mining, and coalbed methane drilling. Now high-volume shale gas drilling is re-traumatizing the state. Poor Pennsylvania is like a streetwalker who has been assaulted yet again.

  Fracking is the new mode of drilling for gas. It is literally the fracturing of the earth, at a depth of about one mile below the surface, to break open shale beds that hold trapped gas. It is a man-made seismic event. The ground trembles at this new technology of the peak oil era-- this is not a metaphor.

  Fracking was spearheaded by Richard Cheney’s old outfit, Halliburton, a huge international drilling services engineering corporation. When the George W. Bush administration came to Washington, one of the Vice-President’s missions was to make way for gas drilling.

  He had a vision. He sought to get the Environmental Protection Agency out of the drillers’ way, to promote a new era of “energy independence” via drilling for shale gas. He worked like the devil, literally, to get a new Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed by Congress. It exempted gas drillers from EPA clean water regulations. The drilling boom was launched. Bush and Cheney, Frick and Frack.  Two ol’ drillers. Their hands on the levers of the bulldozer of power. Things like this were bound to happen.

  If only Susquehanna County, Pa. had had a Sunni-style insurgency with which to repel the invasion. Frick and Frack had wanted to frack Iraq. You know they wanted to! But they had too much unexpected resistance on their hands. Not able to get away with it! Denied! An epic loss of opportunity! It would have been such fun to partner with the Iraqis in the energy independence business! (The Iraqi Sunnis didn’t think so. They’d wreck their wells and set them ablaze.)

Hydraulic fracturing is the pumping of many millions of gallons of slick drilling mud-- a slimy toxic slurry of sand, chemicals, diesel fuel, and water-- under high pressure into a well to break up the shale. This is called stimulating the well. When the well returns the gas, which is mostly methane, to the wellhead, about half of the millions of gallons of slurry returns to the surface, where it spills out into a pit.

  The mess contains millions of gallons of water that will never be usable again. It contains sand, used to thicken the slurry and prop open fractures in the shale beds. It contains toxins like methane. It contains carcinogens, notably benzene, from the diesel fuel used to make the slurry more slick and penetrative. And the mud contains radium and radon from the earth. Yes, dredged-up radioactive substances!

  (And these are only a few of the dozens of chemicals, many quite toxic, that are in the patented superslick “fracking fluid” which arrives on truckbeds, in containers labelled Halliburton, used by the Dimock drillers, Cabot Oil and Gas, based in Houston.)

  This evil slime, the blow-back, is not the typical stuff you’d get at a water treatment plant. This is one highly poisonous fracking mess!  What do you do with it?!

  (And the other half of the mess remains down in the gas well! Leaking through fractures into the surrounding earth! Which is no small consideration.)  

  There is, also, significant air pollution at the drill-sites, methane fumes and hydrocarbon fumes that are burned off and vented into the air, truly the equivalent of a big city’s car exhaust emissions in tiny Dimock.

  What do you do with it? When it returns to the wellhead, this Slime That Ate Dimock just sits in a holding pit and evaporates into the air. The workers near the pit are in full hazmat gear. It just sits. It is a barely contained spill, a disaster waiting to happen. Brought to you by Halliburton. Who brought you the BP disaster in the Gulf.

  (Halliburton was supposed to have adequately inspected their cementing of the Deep Water Horizon well that collapsed and exploded, tarring the beaches of four states, and Halliburton was later found at fault by government investigators.)

  And what else can you do with the chemical slime? You can put it back down the well when you’ve emptied it of gas! You can call this “the sequestering of waste.”

How does a nightmare like this, the tainting of the aquifer in Dimock, develop?

  In Dimock, the people had tried to soldier on and use their well water for showers, yet methane fumes were so bad in the showers they thought they’d pass out. Kids in homes around town took showers at school only. Dimock residents tried to use well water for laundry, and the corrosive fumey water ruined clothing with splotchy stains and it ruined dishes, cookware, silverware-- and dishwashers. People had to have bottled water for cooking and drinking, of course. DEP ordered water be delivered to Dimock in large tanks, “water buffaloes.” A town turned into a third world disaster site. The people of the town are suing the drillers, and the state is fining them, but they’ve made a fortune.

  How this happened? First of all, EPA’s eyes were taken off the ball. From 2005 until 2010, while the drilling boomed, the Freaks of Frack were kept exempt from clean water regulations by the new Energy Policy Act. The EPA was a Casey At The Bat wearing a blinfdold of Richard Cheney’s devising.

  Now EPA is onto the problem. They began a comprehensive study of high-volume fracturing in 2010, and will issue a full report next year. They also acted in 2010, issuing immediate prohibitions against the use of the diesel fuel in the frack fluid. State and local officials are starting to catch up. But for the last five years they’ve been behind the curve. Indeed, they were thrown a curve by the drillers’ public relations offensive.

  They were told, at public info meetings, hydraulic fracturing was an innovative technology. “Natural“ gas was an alternative fuel. There was plenty of it in shale deposits, hundreds of trillions of cubic feet. Enough to meet U.S. energy needs for hundreds of years. Drillers got a lot of “buy-in.” People wanted to believe America could be like a Saudi fiefdom, rich in an alternative petrol. Jobs would be created. American independence would be fostered. Prosperity. A new era. Progress. A boom.

  (Well, yes, a boom in profits for drillers. The drillers took tens of millions of dollars in gas from the ground under Dimock. Linda Fiorentino, whose artesian well blew sky high in 2010, due to a build-up of trapped methane, had gotten about six hundred dollars for leasing her land. It is now worthless.)

  Drillers, in their charm offensive, had portrayed mining for shale gas as a natural process. It’s mostly just “sand and water” which would be pumped into the gas wells, “more than ninety percent water,” they’d say. (It was eventually learned diesel fuel and benzene had been found in the blow-back all along. It was always part of the process.)

  State and local officials, eager for the dream of cheap alternative energy, eager for new local jobs and tax revenues, would echo this poetic mythology. They’d flat-out vouch for the safety of the drilling process. Officials for Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Oil And Gas Managment said there had never been evidence of fracking causing water contamination. (Methane leaking into the Dimock aquifer belies these assurances, which were not true to begin with.)

  The wellheads would be in out of the way rural locations, like fire hydrants in small isolated clearings. You wouldn’t know they were there.  (Tell that lie now in Dimock, and you’ll get a bitter Ha! The drillers' big trucks, the derricks, the constant drone of huge compressors, the hazmat suits, the muddy several-acre dill sites, the pits of slime, the fumes, fairly dominate the landscape.)

  The same lies were told in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Louisiana, places where there is no longer so much belief in mytho-poetic legend. The gas boom has now arrived in the East, in traditional mining states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

And it’s coming to New York. Chesapeake Energy, a big corporate player, is leasing lands throughout Appalachia. Chesapeake is leasing the gas rights to huge tracts of land in the Catskill Region, also in the Delaware River basin along Eastern Pennsylvania. The Catskill tracts are close to the aquifer that supplies fresh drinking water to millions downstate in the New York City region. Similarly, the Delaware River Basin supplies fresh water to the Philadelphia region.

  Environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council want to keep drillers out of these crucial, sensitive areas. They look to the fracking of Dimock as a sentinel event that informs their cause, and they look to the award-winning documentary film, Gasland, as their mainfesto. The film by Josh Fox, a Pennsylvanian, shows  the real life experience of fracked rural communities.

  Here in New York State, where I live, the pitfalls are many, despite the warnings of Pennsylvania’s experience. A recent Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, who resigned last year, gave the publc the same blanket assurances that there is no chance of water contamination from the drilling process. The state has often appeared eager, from the governor’s office on down, to reap tax revenues from allowing some drilling, as officials from other states had been in earlier drilling booms.

  New York City’s Department of Environmental Conservation has called for a ban on drilling in the Catskills area. The state legislature and the governor have established a moratorium on drilling for several months. The state comptroller has joined a suit to compel Halliburton to disclose the exact chemical composition of its fracking fluid.

  Halliburton has thus far failed to disclose the precise makeup of its formula, claiming it’s a trade secret, but it has been known to contain benzene from diesel fuel, and more than 50 other chemicals that help make it slick.

It isn’t only the drilling fluid that is slick.

  The industry’s techniques for gaining “buy-in” from the public is rather oily. They seek to make the public nominal partners in their profiteering. They ask people to lease their lands for money, and for a defined period of time. They promise royalties to lease owners from gas finds. They seek to make everyone a stakeholder.

  They tend to argue that if they drill on neighboring land they can take gas out from under your land too, whether you sign a lease or not-- so all the neighbors are in the same boat and might as well sign and get something. They create momentum for getting everyone into the deal. They portray holdout factions as anti-progress.

  They villify environmental concerns. It’s not toxins that hurt people, it’s environmentalists that hurt profits. They hurt progress, they hurt the business climate, and for the sake of some endangered ruffed grouse that lives over the shale beds! Environmental concerns are depicted as effete, tree-hugging.

  Drillers pay out thousands per acre-- and take out of the ground tens of millions in gas for the marketplace and for stockholders.

  What the landowners do not “get” is how they could band together-- since they’re all in the same boat--  and they could buy up the leases and refuse to let them go to the drillers.

One of the more dispiriting aspects of the story nationally, and on state and local levels, is that the drilling industry is way bigger than the regulatory apparatus. There are far fewer inspectors than there are drill sites. The industry is expected to be largely self-policing and to report its own foul-ups. Only the biggest disasters, like Dimock’s tainted aquifer, get really scrutinized and shut down by regulators. Three wells in Dimock were shut down.

Information Resources On The Internet:
  The amount of pollution that goes unregulated and unchecked is the focus of a special investigative project that can be found at:
  The best long-form reporting I’ve seen is Christopher Bateman’s article in last June’s Vanity Fair, “A Colossal Fracking Mess:”
  The broadcast newsmagazine, NOW, on PBS, has a good introduction, on web-available video, to the film Gasland:
  Propublica.Org does a lot of good up to the minute reporting:

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