Public opposition to hydraulic fracturing is growing in the US and abroad as more people learn about the risks of the natural gas drilling process, known as "fracking."
New Jersey lawmakers have passed the nation's first statewide ban of the practice, which involves injecting water, sand and toxic chemicals deep underground to break up dense rock formations and release natural gas. There was strong bipartisan support for the ban - the state Senate voted 32-1 and the Assembly 56-11.
“New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s signature is all that is necessary now for this critical and timely statewide ban to go into effect,” says Jim Walsh, Eastern Region Director of Food & Water Watch. “If he approves it, New Jersey will be the first state to stand up against the devastating environmental and public health impacts of fracking, which have wreaked havoc on other states across the U.S.”
Food & Water Watch notes at least 61 localities across the US have passed measures against fracking.
“Any benefits of gas production simply do not justify the many potential dangers associated with fracking such as pollution of our lakes, streams and drinking water supplies and the release of airborne pollutants. We should not wait until our natural resources are threatened or destroyed to act. The time to ban fracking in New Jersey is now,” says Senator Bob Gordon (D-Bergen).
New Jersey follows in the footsteps of France, which in June became the first country to pass a nationwide ban on fracking.
New Yorkers Want a Statewide Ban, Too
Meanwhile, following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to allow fracking across 85% of New York’s Marcellus Shale (he only protected NYC's watershed), a coalition of 47 consumer, faith, food, environmental and multi-issue advocacy organizations today called for a statewide ban on the practice.
Under the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) plan, thousands of new wells will be drilled across the state, using billions of gallons of fresh water, and industrializing rural communities across the state.
Over 1,000 cases of water contamination have been reported near fracking sites to date.
“Governor Cuomo got it wrong when he said fracking can be done safely,” says Claire Sandberg, Executive Director of Frack Action. “Not only does this practice carry an unacceptable level of risk, but there is no rationale for drilling when we know that the promises of limitless energy and continuous economic growth are not borne out by the facts.”
Fracking Chemicals Still Unknown
In a separate action, more than 100 groups filed a petition this week demanding that full health and safety information be made available for all the chemicals used in oil and gas development, including fracking chemicals.
Earthjustice filed the petition on behalf of Environmental Defense Fund, The League of Women Voters and more than 100 other groups who point to troubling reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, and sick families.
Little is known about many of the chemicals used in drilling and fracking. What information is available is sobering: 78% of known fracking chemicals are associated with serious short-term health effects such as burning eyes, rashes, asthma-like effects, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, tremors, and convulsions.
Between 22%-47% of those chemicals are also associated with longer-term health effects, including cancer, organ damage, and harm to the endocrine system.
“The more information we have about the chemicals used in fracking and drilling, the easier it will be to keep people safe and healthy,” says Earthjustice Associate Attorney Megan Klein. “But EPA needs to move quickly – we learn of new problems related to this industry almost daily.”
The petition asks the EPA to draft rules that - for the first time - would require manufacturers and processors of drilling and fracking chemicals to conduct testing and produce health and safety data needed to evaluate the health and environmental risks of their substances and mixtures.
Not Just an East Coast Thing
While the Marcellus Shale formation in the Northeast is drawing the most attention and opposition, it isn't the only hotbed of activity.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Los Padres ForestWatch filed a formal protest this month to stop the Bureau of Land Management from leasing 2,600 acres of environmentally sensitive land in Monterey and Fresno counties in California for oil and gas development.
“By turning a blind eye to the dangers of fracking, BLM is putting Monterey’s water quality in serious jeopardy,” says Matt Vespa, an attorney at the Center. “These sensitive areas ought to be protected, not turned into industrial zones.”
Oil and gas development also results in the release of significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Although there are many cost-effective means to control methane leakage, the Bureau of Land Management refused to consider any of these measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution resulting from the proposed lease sale.
New Study Shows Damage to Forests
The California group is right to be concerned about fracking in environmentally sensitive areas.
A new study by a US Forest Service researcher found that wastewater from natural gas hydrofracturing in a West Virginia national forest quickly wiped out all ground plants, killed more than half of the trees and caused radical changes in soil chemistry.
The study, by Mary Beth Adams, a U.S. Forest Service researcher, appears in the July-August issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Quality.
She looked at the effects of land application of fracking fluids on a quarter-acre section of the Fernow Experimental Forest in the Monongahela National Forest. More than 75,000 gallons of fracking fluids were applied to the assigned plot over a two day period during June 2008.
The following effects were found:
- Within two days all ground plants were dead;
- Within 10 days, leaves of trees began to turn brown. Within two years over half of the approximately 150 trees were dead; and
- “Surface soil concentrations of sodium and chloride increased 50-fold as a result of the land application of hydrofracturing fluids…” These elevated levels eventually declined as chemical leached off-site.
The exact chemical composition of these fluids is not known because the chemical formula is classified as confidential proprietary information.
And It's Not Helping the Economy!
A new analysis released this week by Food & Water Watch casts additional doubt on the viability of natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing.
As the federal government prepares to gut key programs to protect water and other natural resources through this week’s debt agreement, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced plans to invest $12.4 million on programs to support shale gas development.
But the report, "Pipe Dreams: What the Gas Industry Doesn’t Want you to Know about Fracking and U.S. Energy Independence" shows that gas leases are not only generating less energy than once forecast, but also a significant portion of US fracked gas will be exported overseas and the industry’s revenues will benefit foreign economies.
“For the past several weeks Americans have been bombarded by news of our government’s apparent financial struggles, yet the federal government is spending money to prop up the inherently unprofitable natural gas industry,” says Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Why cut money from resources to protect the environment while spending money in other places to support an industry that notoriously compromises the integrity of essential water resources? Meanwhile, a substantial portion of the gas and industry profits will actually flow overseas—blowing holes in the myth that gas will make the U.S. economically and energy secure.”
While U.S. natural gas consumption is actually expected to decline through 2015, it is expected to increase overseas—as much as 44% by 2035, with China and India leading that demand.
Liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities once conceptualized for importing gas are now being converted to export terminals to feed the Chinese and Indian markets.
Natural gas from the U.S. is attractive to foreign markets because it is less expensive than that from Asia.
After rising and falling in 2008, natural gas prices plateaued in 2010 and have remained steady since. Moreover, many gas wells are producing less gas than expected, and some U.S.-based companies such as Chesapeake Energy have resorted to selling the land their wells are situated on as a means of generating revenues!
Further adding to doubts of the natural gas industry’s ability to generate ample energy, news surfaced earlier this week that the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating the accuracy of the industry’s claims regarding the performance of shale gas wells.
“Rural communities across the U.S. are literally being torn apart by the natural gas industry, and for what? So the gas can be exported? So foreign-held corporations can turn a profit? It’s simply not worth the cost to our health and natural resources. Natural gas won’t bolster the U.S. economy and it won’t serve as a panacea to our energy woes. The only parties benefiting from it are foreign economies and multinational corporations," says Hauter.