Monday, September 30, 2013

Fracking and the Farm: A Chemical Cocktail

Fracking (aka, hydraulic fracturing or industrial gas drilling) is a dangerous way of getting oil and gas and a shortsighted energy strategy. It's poisoning our air and water and on its way to jeopardizing the health of millions more Americans. When you first hear about it and our ability to access it widely in the United States, it sounds like a great idea. “Energy independence”.

But if you begin to look more deeply into how the gas is extracted from the ground, especially in parts of the country responsible for our food supply, you quickly learn how this might be affecting our food, our farmers and our livestock.

Fracking takes place when wells are drilled into the ground to reach lower levels of the earth where natural gas is stored. To create those wells, 1 to seven million gallons of water are used to blast the ground open.

Once the well has been created, the fracking begins, using anywhere between 1 to seven million gallons of water, along with a mix of up to about 500 chemicals. This mix of chemicals is proprietary to the industry that does the drilling which means we don’t know what is in this cocktail that is blast into the ground.

If it stayed there, maybe that wouldn’t be a problem. But it doesn’t. Half of the water that goes down into the earth comes back up and is stored in pools on the surface near the wells. The water is called “flowback water” or “produced” water.

These open holding tanks not only contain this water but also the chemicals that went down with it. Some of these pools are left standing, others are intentionally evaporated, releasing these chemicals back into the air.

And in Colorado this week, these flooded.

Interestingly, at the same time that Colorado was blanked in water now contaminated with all of these chemicals, agricultural pesticides and sewage, a Cornell University study was released that highlights what happens to the livestock that live on farms close to fracking wells.

According to The Independent, “Professor Oswald, an expert on molecular medicine at Cornell University, compiled 24 incidents across six US states where livestock on farms adjacent to drilling sites died or suffered illness including reproductive and neurological problems potentially following exposure to fracking chemicals.”

His warnings are stark, but what is even more striking is that British operators must release details of the chemicals they use. In the United States, that is not required. Here in the US, the blend of chemicals used is protected as proprietary information which means that there is no way of knowing which chemicals are being used and the extent of the environmental and health damage that might be created.

So what is the concern? Professor Oswald summed it up: “We are reporting short-term health changes but no one knows what the long-term health changes may be, especially those caused by low doses of chemicals.”

Any pollution from oil fields likely will be mixed with a stew of agricultural pesticides, sewage, gasoline from service stations and other contaminants, said Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to the Denver Post.

There are more than 20,000 wells in the surrounding areas and 3,200 permits for open pits in Weld County, according to state data.

“Any flood that breeches a wastewater pit will flush the waste and contaminated sediments into streams and rivers,” Duke University Professor of Environmental Sciences told Fast Company. “Another concern is pipeline ruptures for oil and gas lines.”

As these chemicals blanket Colorado and the state and industry work to assess the damage in the flooded fields, rather than wait ten years to find out, perhaps it’s time that we begin asking these questions.

By Robyn O’Brien

………Robyn O’Brien grew up in Texas and was recruited by Enron and Exxon out of business school



  1. This is freaky! You would think fracking would be a last-minute desperation move to get us out of some sort of hole. It seems its just another way to fuel the consumptive habits we currently have! The scariest part is that the frackers, by government ordinance, are allowed to keep their methods a secret. I'm not sure what should freak us out more, the truth or the idea that the truth is blatantly hidden from us. Anyways, I agree that fracking is bad and we need to turn our efforts (and energy) to producing technology for clean energy!

  2. Energy is just something we will always strive for. We will never be able to just create it. Even solar and wind power require electricity supplied machines to create the solar panels and wind turbines. Same thing with hybrid cars or even electric cars. They are all tied to fossil fuels. Always will be. Fracking is just another way to squeeze more energy out of this country, which is better than importing, just as long as they can develop a safer more efficient method. The problem is that drilling for oil and even fracking require the empty void that is created to be replaced with some sort of substance. In most cases the density of the liquid being substituted in its place is less. A drastic example of how this can be detrimental is visible in what has been happening in Florida. The water table and the aqueducts have been depleted of their water which leaves that empty void. Soon after all the ground over top begins to very slowly shift and become unsettled to the point of creating a sink hole. Some can be small around the size of a car or has we have seen recently big enough to swallow a whole house. Depending on the amount of void created we could be looking at whole towns being lost or possibly a state just sinking into the ground. Maybe what we need is a few arc reactors from Iron Man and then all our problems will be solved.