The Dried Up Legacy of Fossil Fuels: Part 1

Local residents in Bessemer, Pennsylvania, gathered in front of an unconventional gas well operated by Shell Oil, to protest the impacts drilling may have on farming, water, and air quality.

Local residents in Bessemer, Pennsylvania, gathered in front of an unconventional gas well operated by Shell Oil, to protest the impacts drilling may have on farming, water, and air quality.

“Where there’s a boom there’s bound to be a bust.”
The shale oil boom has resulting in the depletion and contamination of water, compromising of our health, death of organisms and ecosystems, pollution of our air and the shaking of our planet. Now, the bust. The bust leaves us with the dried up legacy of the oil and gas industry in North America where an obsession with unconventional drilling techniques plague the continent. The fracking boom throughout North America was seen as a blessing to many as a means of bolstering economic mobility and providing vast job opportunities. However, as discussed throughout the previous series of posts, these opportunities come at a severe cost, jeopardizing the health of ourselves and the environment for generations to come.

To reiterate, a major concern for communities located near intensive fracking operations is the contamination of drinking water. Water is a central issue with hydraulic fracturing, compromising the health and safety of groundwater reserves both at the initial injection phase of toxic fracturing fluids, and again during the reinjection of contaminated waste water. The severe effects of this have been discussed using examples from Pavilion, Wyoming where the Environmental Protection Agency discovered high levels of benzene, acetone and diesel, among other toxins, present in water samples (Palliser, 2012). Contamination of water also occurs above ground due to improper practices by oil and gas workers resulting in fluid spills and runoff into rivers and nearby ecosystems, with detrimental effects on livestock and surrounding species. The interconnected nature of water contamination is devastating to humans and the environment due to the irreversibility of the damage. As stated by Canadian geologist David Hughes, “Once water is used for fracking, it is lost to the water cycle forever.”

In addition to water contamination, fracking has contributed negatively to several other aspects of environmental and human health; including increasing rates of air pollution and the presence of dangerous particulate matter within homes near operations (McMahon, 2014). In addition, in the United States a report released in Congress in 2011 revealed that more than 650 of the chemicals used in fracking were carcinogens (Goldenberg, 2011). Furthermore, an increase in incidences of methane leaks in wells has resulted in the explosions of homes due to methane pooling, particularly along the extensively fracked Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. Finally, as discussed previously, fracking operations have been linked to an increase in seismic activity due to both exacerbation of existing natural faults and fractures, as well as disturbance during waste water reinjection.

These issues entrenched in the operation of the oil and gas industry will continue to worsen if the current rate of drilling continues. However, in areas where hydraulic fracturing operations have been particularly extensive, such as Bradford County, PA., we see a glimpse into what the legacy of fracking leaves us. Bradford County, is one of the epicenters of oil and gas drilling in the United States. As production began to dry up in Bradford County, many wells were left abandoned as workers left in search of new prospects. The county was left desolate, with wells leaking and uncapped. As a result, the once booming town of Bradford County has experienced a significant decline in population, from about 17,000 at its peak in 1940, to 8000 currently (Kelly, 2014). The derelict remains of fracking operations in Bradford County pose serious risks to the environment and the health of the remaining residents, providing a clear picture of where the fracking boom will take us. Wells that are no longer in use are required to be plugged in order to ensure pollutants do not leak into groundwater or make there way back to the surface. This is an expensive and demanding process requiring the insertion of a cement layer between every gas, water or saline bearing rock layer underground (Kelly, 2014). This has been neglected in Bradford County, and as a result methane from abandoned wells has been migrating to the surface and pooling in people’s homes (Kelly, 2014). As presented in previous posts regarding the dangers of methane, the irresponsible abandonment of wells correlates with increased incidences of gas related home explosions in Bradford County (Kelly, 2014).

House Explosions in Bradford Pennsylvania tied to Migrating Methane Gas from Drilling Activity. retrieved from www.protectingourwaters.wordpress.com400 × 271Search by image

House Explosions in Bradford Pennsylvania tied to Migrating Methane Gas from Drilling Activity. retrieved from http://www.protectingourwaters.wordpress.com400 × 271Search by image

Bradford County paints a grim picture of the legacy we have inherited from the oil and gas industry and the direction we are rapidly heading in if hydraulic fracturing operations are not reigned in. To many, Bradford County serves as a visual reminder that where mining or drilling happens, “fossil fuel wealth burns hot and short” (Kelly, 2014).

In the next post, I will examine some of the proposed solutions and mitigation strategies to ensure we learn from the example of Bradford County.

References and Further Reading
Kelly, S. (2014). When the Shale Runs Dry: A Look at the Future of Fracking. DeSmog Blog
http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-11-03/when-the-shale-runs-dry-a-look-at-the-future-of-fracking

McMahon, J. (2014). Air Pollution Spikes In Homes Near Fracking Wells. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2014/06/26/air-pollution-spikes-in-homes-near-fracking-wells/

Palliser, J. (2012). Fracking fury. Science Scope, 35(7), 20-24. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/927534588?accountid=13876
Future of fracking

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Putting out Fire with Fire : Fracking and Flammable Water

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Substantial scientific evidence has revealed strong linkages between hydraulic fractring activity and groundwater contamination. This has manifested throughout the United States in the form of neurological and reproductive damage, severely ailing livestock and visibly polluted tap water, to name a few. However, more dramatic indicators of the dangers associated with fracking have been documented in Dimock, Pennsylvania, located in the natural gas mecca of the Marcellus Shale. In Dimock, contaminated water can be identified through a simple yet dangerous home science experiment, involving a match held to a running tap. If the water is indeed contaminated, the bizarre phenomenon of a stream of water bursting into flame provides clear evidence of traces of methane.

Flammable tap water in Dimock has been linked to traces of methane detected in drinking water wells. A study conducted by Duke University explores the connection between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination in the Marcellus Shale area by testing drinking water wells in proximity to natural gas wells. Findings from this study reveal that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that the drilling companies were extracting (Lustgarten, 2011). This indicates that the gas may be seeping underground through the fractures created during the hydraulic fracturing process, in addition to any other natural or man-made crevasses (Lustgarten, 2011). Of the wells tested closest to the gas wells, water samples on average contained 17 times the levels of methane detected in wells further from drilling, further illustrating the connection between drilling and contamination (Lustgarten, 2011).

Incidents of methane contamination have been widely experienced in gas drilling areas including Colorado and Ohio in addition to Pennsylvania. In all cases, residents concluded that there had been no issue with contamination prior to the onset of drilling operations. In an attempt to deflect accusations, gas companies have attributed the cause of methane infiltration to natural causes. Biogenic, naturally occurring methane, can be detected in water samples from fracking sites. However, samples collected during the Duke investigation indicated high concentrations of thermogenic methane, which is derived from the same hydrocarbon layers where gas drilling is targeted, thus again proving the direct link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination (Lustgarten, 2011).

Residents of Dimock, PA., are among those who have witnessed the dramatic and perilous effects of methane contamination. A drinking water well on the property of local resident Norma Fiorentino provides an example of the damages resulting from drilling. In this case, stray gas from a nearby gas well had worked its way into crevasses within the rock, gradually leaking upwards into the aquifer and eventually into her well. A spark created by a motorized pump inside the well house triggered an explosion due to the build up of fumes within (Lustgarten, 2009). This is not a singular phenomenon in Dimock, where many drinking water wells have exploded under the operation of Cabot Oil & Gas. In one case, a local resident was advised to “open a window if he planned to take a bath” due to the build up of methane in his well (Lustgarten, 2009). A particularly treacherous explosion in Cleveland, OH resulted in the lifting of a house clear off the ground due to gas build up in the basement. Investigation into this explosion revealed the at fault party to be a nearby drilling company that had failed to adequately build protective concrete casing, while continuing to operate the well (Lustgarten, 2009).

Methane becomes dangerous when it evaporates out of water and into people’s homes. At this point it becomes flammable, and also can cause suffocation to those who breathe it. Concentrations of methane can cause headaches, nausea, brain damage and eventually death (Lustgarten, 2011). In poverty stricken areas, such as Dimock, residents saw the arrival of hydraulic fracturing operations as a blessing, delivering them from their financial woes. However, as improper protective measures continue and the destructive process causes stray gas to seep into drinking water wells, residents are faced with the dilemma of sacrificing their economic wellbeing, or their health.

The following video portrays some of the impacted residents of Dimock, PA due to persistent gas drilling by Cabot Oil and Gas:

This video emphasizes the extreme effects of methane infiltration in drinking water:

Sources and Further Reading:

Lustgarten, A. (2009). Officials in Three States Pin Water Woes on Gas Drilling. ProPublica.
http://www.propublica.org/article/officials-in-three-states-pin-water-woes-on-gas-drilling-426

Lustgarten, A. (2011). Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking. ProPublica. http://www.propublica.org/article/scientific-study-links-flammable-drinking-water-to-fracking by Abrahm Lustgarten

Fractured Ground: Fracking Linked to Earthquake Activity

Ohio-earthquake-fracking-wellsAs the adverse effects associated with hydraulic fracturing grow more apparent in human, animal and environmental health, so too do they become of growing concern for the earth as a whole. The process of fracking is inherently destructive, jeopardizing the health of ecosystems and their inhabitants at every phase. The effects of the toxic slew of chemicals when injected into the earth do not just affect health, but have also been linked to the advent of low magnitude earthquakes.

Considering the disruptive nature of the process, involving the drilling of a vertical well many kilometers beneath the earth’s surface, followed by directionally drilling horizontally to expose shale to fracturing fluids, the resulting increase in seismic activity near fracking sites may not come as a surprise. Studies exploring the connection between hydraulic fracturing and earthquake activity have determined the cause of the quakes to be both the initial injection of fracturing fluids, and more commonly, the reinjection of wastewater.

The injection of fluids into the earth’s subsurface in the initial phase of fracking can lubricate existing fault zones, helping adjoining rocks to slip along the fault boundary (Palliser, 2012). This movement that the fluids facilitate, results in an earthquake. Earthquakes also occur as a result of the reinjection of wastewater fluids into sandstone at a depth equal to that of the original well causing slippages of faults at the injection site (Fischetti, 2012).

This correlation between fracking activity and seismic activity is evident in Oklahoma, witnessing an increase in the number of earthquakes occurring near hydraulic fracturing sites due to both drilling and waste injection (Clary, 2015). Further research into the causes and effects of these earthquakes has been linked to the operations of four Oklahoma high volume wastewater wells, resulting in earthquake activity up to 35 kilometers away (Clary, 2015). Studies linked to Oklahoma’s recent burst in seismic activity, including several earthquakes of over 3.0 magnitude within the first half of 2014, has led to the conclusion that earthquake events such as these can produce seismic events near wastewater wells “even a hemisphere away” (Clary, 2015).

Oklahoma is not the only state experiencing the groundshaking effects of fracking. In December 2011, the state of Ohio was shaken by two earthquakes occurring within .8 kilometers from the hydraulic fracturing injection well. Earlier that year, nine earthquakes shook the state between March and November, all within an 8 kilometer radius of a wastewater injection well. It is estimated that Ohio will continue to experience earthquakes, even if fracking operations are suspended due to the destructive process of wastewater disposal (Fischetti, 2012).

Sources and Further Reading:

You are what you eat…

If the saying is true, it may be time for a change in diet. Or, for residents of states affected by shale gas drilling such as Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Texas, a change of address. A study by veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and molecular medicine professor Robert Oswald sheds light on the risks posed to animal and human health by hydraulic fracturing occurring on farmland by conducting interviews with animal owners in the above listed six states. The cases documented in their 2012 paper involve farms located near high volume hydraulic fracturing wells.

Hydraulic fracturing requires a toxic cocktail of chemicals and water, present at the injection site and persisting in wastewater. Among the numerous deadly chemicals hydraulic fracturing fluid contains are petroleum hydrocarbons and quaternary ammonium compounds, both reported to cause lesions in the lung, liver, kidneys,intestines and trachea. Oswald and Bamberger outline the species affected by these chemicals and chronicle the damage and impairment they undergo. Among the impacted species are white tailed deer, cows, fish and poultry, commonly subject to reproductive issues and sudden death since the arrival of shale gas wells (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The most widely affected species in this study, the cow, demonstrates the excruciating degree of harm hydraulic fracturing operations inflict. Exposure to dangerous chemicals utilized in fracking occur in many ways, the most common being exposure through affected ponds or creaks due to wastewater leakage or improper fencing of waste impoundments. Exposure also occurs due to pipeline leaks, compressor station malfunction and well flaring. In an extreme case, direct exposure to fracking fluid occurred when a worker shut down a chemical blender during the fracturing process, releasing fluids into a nearby cow pasture resulting in the death of 17 cows in one hour.Typically, exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluids results in death 1-3 days post exposure (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The most common health impact on cattle when exposed to hydraulic fracturing fluids results in reproductive issues. This manifests in several ways, including an increase in stillborn calves, often with congenital abnormalities. Other causes of death include respiratory failure, circulatory collapse, and acute liver or kidney failure. The role played by hydraulic fracturing in the impairment and death of numerous herds of cattle cannot be denied. In a particular case, one farmer had his cows separated into two pastures, one with a creek and one without. Of the 60 cows exposed to the creek water where wastewater had been dumped, 21 died and 16 failed to reproduce. All of the cows in the separate field were unaffected (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

Also included in the study are companion animals such as dogs, cats, llamas and horses. The most frequent incident of exposure for these animals occurs when contaminated water is consumed from a well, spring creek or pond. This results most commonly in reproductive and neurological problems as well as gastrointestinal and dermatological issues. In one case documented by Oswald and Bamberger, a previously healthy female dog gave birth to 15 puppies; of which 7 were stillborn, and 8 died within 24 hours. All of which were born with a complete or partial absence of hair(Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The severe effects of hydrofracking fluid are not restricted to animals. Toxicology tests were conducted on the owners of companion animals and farm animals, and the results are not coincidental. Commonly occurring in residents in proximity to shale gas wells is arsenic poisoning, with symptons of severe abdominal pain, backache and fatigue. Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance in shale, and is surfaced during hydraulic fracturing through wastewater. The negligent storing of wastewater and dumping into creeks and ponds results in arsenic poisoning. Long term effects of arsenic poisoning include peripheral neuropathy in humans and partial paralysis and fetal death in animals (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The results from this study help us to understand the extreme effects of hydraulic fracturing on both animal and human health. This is of growing concern as fracking operations accelerate and drilling companies refuse to disclose all of the dangerous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid, furtively declaring the contents to be a “trade secret”. For humans there is concern both for residents of these affected states, as well as the greater population consuming meat that may have been exposed. In many cases, food producing animals are not tested for contaminants before slaughter, while farms in areas testing positive for air and water contamination do not test meat or dairy products before consumption. A possible solution suggested by Bamberger and Oswald is increased funding for food safety research to protect ourselves from further harm. In order to reduce the suffering of livestock as well, greater efforts are required to adequately deal with wastewater. Metal containers have been proposed as an alternative to open air impoundments that have had a disastrous history of leaking into farmland (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing has infiltrated every necessary aspect of human survival. It is in our water, in our air, on our land and in our food. If the extraction and provision of oil remains a priority, the menu for survival may be up for revision.

Fracking Farmland 615px

Sources and further reading:
Bamberger, M., Oswald, R. (2012). Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health. Scientific Solutions. 22 (1). pg 51-77. http://www.psehealthyenergy.org/data/Bamberger_Oswald_NS22_in_press.pdf

Drinking dollars?

Image retrieved from http://ecowatch.com/2014/06/16/wyoming-fracking-water-contamination-investigation/

Pavillion, WY resident Louis Meeks’ holds up well water containing methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results in this 2013 photo. Photo credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

In 1990, residents of Pavillion, Wyoming first began to notice something was wrong with their water. Oil wells in backyards were causing tap water to turn black and taste like gas. Over 20 years later, in 2011, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally made the connection between fracking and groundwater contamination (Zeidel et. al, 2011). Residents in Pavillion living on sites of wells drilled by oil giant Encana complained of foul smelling and undrinkable water in 2008, spurring the EPA to begin conducting tests. The EPA drilled wells of their own in the area and discovered the water tested was highly alkaline and contained large concentrations of potassium and chloride as well as synthetic chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons and traces of diesel fuel (Zeidel et. al, 2011). The presence of these chemicals was linked to problems with the cementing of the casing used to line the wells, thus allowing the fracturing fluid to penetrate well water supplies (Zeidel et al, 2011). As a result, residents of Pavillion have experienced neurological impairment, loss of smell and nerve pain (Lustgarten, 2011).

Spokesman of Encana Doug Hock maintains that there is low probability that fracking has led to water pollution, however hydraulic fracturing is an inherently dangerous process, posing threats to water supply at all levels of production. Fracking only one well requires enough water to fill seven olympic sized swimming pools (Deveau, 2014). The extraction phase of the process requires water to be mixed with a toxic swill of chemicals (Deveau, 2014). During the injection process, fluids can leak to other areas. Leakoff, if not controlled, causes the injected fluids to leak into drinking water aquifers (Palliser, 2012).

After injection, the internal pressure of the rock formation causes the fluid to return to the surface. (Palliser, 2012). This is called flowback, a liquid containing both the injected chemicals as well as naturally occurring materials such as hydrocarbons, brines, metals and radio nuclides (Palliser, 2012). In order to be disposed of, flowback is often injected underground, or treated and reused at wastewater treatment plants. Problems occur with each method. In Ohio, the disposal capacity is being threatened by expanding flowback from Marcellus, a major fracking development in Pennsylvania. These limitations in disposal have led to the proposal of shipping brine waste to be deposited in the Gulf Coast (Downing, 2013). Furthermore, waste treatment plants used by fracking developments to treat and reuse wastewater are not equipped to remove contaminants such as chlorides and radio nuclides before the water is returned to rivers (Palliser, 2012).

Cases such as those in Wymoing illustrate the need for further control in the process of hydraulic fracturing if operations are intended to continue. A study by an endocrinologist in the U.S reveals that 75% of the chemicals used to frack disrupt sensory organs and the respiratory gastrointestinal system (Deveau, 2014).Given these statistics, the denial of fracking as a cause of groundwater contamination by companies such as Encana is extremely irresponsible, ultimately prioritizing economic growth over human and environmental health. This blunder is sure to become an issue of devastating proportions as we eventually discover that we cannot in fact drink our dollars.

Sources and further reading:

  • Palliser, J. (2012). Fracking fury.Science Scope, 35(7), 20-24. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/927534588?accountid=13876
  • Deveau, JL. (2014). How to Fight Fracking. Alternatives Journal. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/docview/1508764319?pq-origsite=summon
  • Zeidel, M., O’Neil, L. (2011).US EPA Makes Connection Between Fracking and Water Pollution. The Oil Daily(c) 2011 Energy Intelligence Group.  http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-274587263.html

a timeline of success

In light of the 2015 Scottish ban on fracking developments, introductions to the other members of the slowly growing frack-free society are in order:

  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010 
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2012
  • Broadview Heights, Mansfield, Oberlin and Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2012 
  • Cantabria, Spain, in 2013
  • Hawai’i County in 2013 
  • Dallas, Texas, in 2013
  • Mora County, New Mexico in 2014
  • Beverly Hills, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Mendocino Counties, California, in 2014
  •  Denton, Texas, in 2014
  • Athens, Ohio, in 2014
  • Boulder, Colorado extends 2012 ban in 2014
  • New York State: first state to ban fracking in December 2014 
  • Fracking is also currently prohibited in GermanyNorthern IrelandFrance and Bulgaria.

http://keeptapwatersafe.org/global-bans-on-fracking/

Scotland and the path towards a fracking free future

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On January 29th, 2015, Scotland became part of a small but mighty international community, joining the list of countries and communities that have banned fracking.  Energy minister Fergus Ewing announced a moratorium on granting planning consents for fracking developments due to concerns surrounding both environmental and public health (fuelfix).

The Scottish Green Party has been campaigning against unconventional gas extraction since 2011, and it appears their voices have been heard. In a briefing article published in December, the party released a simplistic breakdown of the issues surrounding fracking in the UK. Among these are concerns for local pollution and health, as well as the risks of slowing the movement towards a low carbon economy, diverting money from renewable energy technologies. The dense population of the UK amplifies health concerns, while within a broader context of the European Union further complications arise. Due to the fixed price of gas within the EU wide market, the extraction of shale gas will have no effect on reducing gas prices, as is the motivation behind fracking in the U.S. Given the multifaceted nature of the effects of fracking, the economic benefits do not outweigh the harm (Scottish Greens).

In his speech regarding the moratorium, Ewing announced the launching of a full public consultation exploring the impacts on the environment and health. During this time, no fracking plans will be granted consent until technical work has been carried out on planning, environmental regulation and assessment of health impacts (The Herald Scotland).

The implementation of this indefinite ban is undoubtedly a vital step towards a low carbon economy and greater climate stability, however MSPs of the Scottish Green Party are not fully satisfied. Further action is urged by the Scottish Greens to ensure progress is made, including provision of funding for local authorities to develop stringent policies to handle fracking applications. A petition has been circulated calling on the UK Government to halt the granting of fracking licenses across Scotland. In addition, the Scottish Greens are urging the government to speed up planned upgrades to the national grid to allow for the implementation of renewable energy schemes. Alison Johnston, MSP of the Scottish Greens warns the moratorium falls short of a full ban, asserting that the Party will not rest until fully satisfied (Scottish Greens).

Information retrieved from:
http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/scottish-politics/ewing-announces-fracking-ban-in-scotland.1422459054

http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/category/news/

http://fuelfix.com/blog/2015/02/02/scotland-adds-to-fracking-bans/

Scottish Greens unconventional oil and gas briefing: http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/12/Unconventional-oil-and-gas-SGP-briefing-Central-Belt.pdf