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

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

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