Ask Eartha: Hydrofracking in Colorado raises many environmental concerns
January 2, 2014
I grew up in Pennsylvania and have enjoyed living in Colorado for the past few years. It is deeply saddening for me to hear about hydrofracking in the state. I understand it is an energy source and that fracking occurs across the country but my exposure to the industry back east was not a positive one. I'm curious about the real concerns regarding hydrofracking.
— Loretta, Keystone
It was September 2010 when 13 Pennsylvania families sued Marcellus Shale, claiming that their water wells had been contaminated by poisonous fluids blasted deep underground by the drilling company. That year, I attended a conference in Pennsylvania. The state's watershed specialists gather annually to discuss their major issues, fracking being the primary concern. At the time the state's budget was perpetually diminishing. Local officials were overworked and often ill equipped to manage the fast-growing phenomenon of hydraulic fracturing.
Eyewitness accounts described the company moving in and a month prior to operations, informing locals of its intention to hydrofrack. Well, owners scrambled to get water-quality tests performed on their wells. This way if the fracking caused any pollution they would at least be able to document the effects.
I was horrified. Not only was the deadline nearly impossible to meet for watershed specialists, but the plan was to wait and see if pollution was a result. The specialists were plagued with concerns.
Fracking for fossil energy deposits began in the late 1940s. Often there is drilling, and in some cases small explosives are used to open up the bedrock. Fluids are then forced, under great pressure, into a fracture gradient surrounding rock, deep within the earth. The fracture sites serve as conduits for water, fracking fluid, chemicals and sand to flow to a wellbore. This allows for gas and oil to be removed from the formerly impervious rock formations.
In 2013, data collected from 700 counties in 11 of the gas-producing states, founded that 15.3 million Americans have a natural gas well within 1 mile of their home. SourceWatch.org anticipates that by 2015, the United States will produce the majority of its own oil through unconventional methods.
The list of risks and concerns regarding hydraulic fracturing is a long one. It includes contamination of groundwater; competition for water uses; methane pollution impacting climate change; air pollution; blowouts due to gas explosion; work place safety; waste disposal; and exposure to toxic chemicals.
The chemical cocktails used in hydrofracking are always unique to the job. Slickwater fluid streams contain freshwater and a friction-reducing agent. Guar, a common food additive, is used to increase viscosity. Hydrochloric acid is used to clean up the formation prior to the job. Gel breakers, clay control and weighting agents are also used. The website fracfocus.org was established to inform the public about the additives being used in the fracking process. Unfortunately, "trade secrets" are not listed.
A 2011 article in the journal "The Human and Ecological Risk Assessment" compiled a list of 632 chemicals used in drilling operations throughout the United States. Of the identified chemicals …
• 75 percent could affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, skin, eyes and other sensory organs
• 40-50 percent could affect the brain/nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems and the kidneys
• 37 percent could affect the endocrine system
• 25 percent could cause cancer and mutations
Methane is also released at drilling sites. The natural gas contributes to global warming and is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that in Weld County, Colo., 4 percent of the methane produced by gas wells escapes.
Those carbon emissions can be compared to that of 1 million to 3 million cars.
Air pollutants produced by drilling include benzene, toluene, xylene, ethyl benzene, particulate matter, smog, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and metals contained in diesel fuel combustion.
The use of 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel in fracking operations between the years 2005 and 2009 is also a major issue. Considered the "Halliburton Loophole," the 2005 Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing companies from abiding by the Safe Drinking Water Act. A congressional investigation found that these natural gas companies had neither sought nor received permits and did not perform the environmental reviews required by law.
Natural gas companies should take responsibility for purifying the water they use. In addition to pollution concerns, there is also the heated debate of water rights.
The concept of producing energy locally and sustainably must be a nationwide priority, but there have to be more stringent regulations and an implementation of carbon taxes. Violators should be prohibited from obtaining federal and state land drilling leases. In addition, exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act must be repealed.
I should include a friendly reminder to decrease your personal energy use or, at the least, make it more efficient.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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