The following is the second in a series of pieces highlighting how our dependence on oil has pushed us to the age of ‘Extreme Energy’ where increasingly risky environmental and public health trade-offs are accepted as the status quo in the ravenous pursuit of energy.

by Andrew Racle, Program Intern

While deep-water offshore drilling is currently making headlines because of the BP disaster in the gulf, it is not the only form of “Extreme-Energy” that warrants our attention.  In fact, our dependence on oil has not only driven more extreme drilling in all possible forms, these forms are all equally dangerous and in need of regulation.

Of the various forms of Extreme Energy, only one, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, takes place on American soil. While fossil fuel has always been extractable from the natural fissures in certain rock formations, some of these deposits are too diffuse to be economically feasible using traditional drilling methods.  Increasing demand, however, has spurred the development of fracturing technology.  Pioneered in West Texas, fracking is being used to increase the productivity of drill sites in shale that previously were too expensive to drill.

Fracking is dependent on fracturing fluid, typically comprised of water-based concoctions riddled with assortments of chemicals.  The chemical makeup of the fluid varies from company to company.  The process of fracking involves forcing the tainted water straight down into the earth.  By pumping fracturing fluid deep into the rock formation fissures under the earth, the cracks are expanded and combined.  These expanded cracks allow one single well to tap into multiple diffuse deposits.  Though this new drilling technology allows relatively cheaper drilling for the oil companies, the dangers of such extreme practice brings costs to public health and the environment.

The injection of fracking fluid into fissures is extremely unnatural and can have far reaching consequences.  The most direct effect of fracking, in fact its very purpose, is to weaken the vertical joints in the shale bedrock.  This weakening of joints deep in the earth may have disastrous effects.  With the presence of injected fluid, the effective normal stress of the rock is reduced.  In areas where these already exists sufficient sheer stress, the entire structure may slip in sheer, generating seismic events.  In addition to sheer slips, subsistence events may also occur due to fracking if considerable production of oil leads to a lowering of the reservoir pressure on the rock.

Examples of groundquakes that have already occurred include a tremor registering 2.8 on the Richter scale that occurred on June 2, 2009 in Cleborne, Texas.  While this tremor was not particularly powerful or dangerous, it is distressing to note that it was the first quake in the town’s 140 year history.  If fracking practices are allowed to continue unrestricted, the rock formations may become increasingly weakened over time.  It is unclear what the long term risks of continued fracking will be in terms of seismic activity.

Another danger that may accompany fracking is the contamination of the nation’s groundwater.  With hydraulic fluid being injected deep into the earth, there exists a concern that the fluid may mix with deep water-table reservoirs.  There have been confirmed toxins present in fracking fluid mixtures, including cancer causing benzene.  The drilling industry maintains that no danger of contamination exists, arguing that not only is their fracking fluid safe to mix with groundwater, but that such mixing does not even occur.

Alarmingly, however, the industry refuses to divulge the specific contents of their mixture, hiding behind the veil of intellectual property concerns.  It is known that some hydraulic fracturing companies have used diesel fuel as a fracturing fluid.  With such dangerous chemicals being pumped deep under the earth, the health risks posed by any potential mixing with groundwater can be very great.  The water tables of entire cities, such as 90% New York City’s water supply, may become contaminated.

In addition to the broader environmental and water contamination issues associated with the extreme practice of fracking, fenceline communities located around these drill sites are disproportionately put in danger. Drilling for oil is a dirty and dangerous practice, even without the application of extreme techniques.  Many fenceline communities have reported contamination of local water supplies, to the point where the tap water has become so filled with gunk that the water itself is flammable.  The communities along the Barnett Shale region of Texas are an example of the local dangers of fracking at their worst.

DISH, Texas (named after the DISH Network satellite TV provider) is the site of eleven natural gas compression stations at its southern boundary.  Both animals and people in the town were getting sick.  After spending 15 percent of its annual budget on a private environmental air study, DISH found that the air in the town was saturated with extremely high levels of carcinogens and neurotoxins, including benzene. An NPRstory from November 2009 documents the health issues faced by the town.  While the battle in DISH is shaping up to be the archetypal struggle between small town and huge corporation, it is easy to see that across the country extreme fracking sites present serious health risks for local communities.  The cumulative effects of air pollution at the fenceline goes to show just how toxic fracking can be.

Recently, a pair of explosions at fracking wells in the Marcellus Shale has underscored the dangers inherent in the application of such extreme drilling technology.  The explosions were a result of the failure of a piece of machinery called the blowout preventer.  This is the same piece that failed in the BP gulf spill.  There were no injuries in either fracking explosion, but in both instances tens of thousands of gallons of drilling fluids were released.  No fluid has turned up in streams, but monitoring is currently taking place to see if any of the fracking fluid has seeped into groundwater.

Communities continue to fight back against the dangers of fracking.  Communities already reeling from the fracking toxins, such as DISH, are organizing to continue to take fenceline sample data that can make a case for stronger local regulation and good neighbor practices.  Communities that could become affected by future fracking development, such as those communities in the Marcellus region, are heeding Dish’s example and already mobilizing to keep toxins out of the local air.

The dangerous reach of fracking fluid even has huge population centers like New York City getting in the fight to protect their drinking water.  Both local and state governments in the Marcellus region have begun to demand increased transparency and study in the process of fracking.

Communities in Arkansas, Colorado and New Mexico have contacted Global Community Monitor to start community monitoring projects. The state and regional environmental regulators have little to no information about the air and water contamination related to fracking.

For more information about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, particularly on local fenceline communities, be sure to catch Josh Fox’s documentary, “Gasland,” broadcasting on HBO through 2012.