Fracking for food
Fracking - the process the oil and gas industry uses to extract fossil fuel as much as two miles below the ground - may directly impact the nation's water supply, reduce water-based recreational and sports activity and lead to an increase in the cost of food.
The cocktail soup required for each well requires about two million pounds of silica sand, as much as 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals and three to nine million gallons of fresh water. There are more than 500,000 active wells in the country.
In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Texas energy companies used about 26.5 billion gallons of water. Energy companies drilling in Pennsylvania used the second largest amount of water, followed by Colorado and Arkansas. Nuclear plants, which use more water, can recycle most of it. Because frack wastewater is toxic, oil and gas companies can't recycle the contaminated water.
The water is provided by companies that draw up to three million gallons a day from rivers and lakes, by individuals who sell water from their ponds, and by municipalities.
However, fresh water is not unlimited.
Beginning about five years ago, the water in the nation's aquifers has been decreasing significantly. The depletion since 2008, according to Leonard Konikow, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, is about three times the rate as between 1900 through 2008.
Significant reductions in water availability are now common for the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River, which provides water to about 40 million people in California and the Southwest, including the agriculture-rich Imperial Desert of southeastern California. Lake Mead, a part of the Colorado system, provides water to Las Vegas and the Nevada desert communities; its water level is close to the point where the Department of the Interior will declare a water shortage and impose strict water-use regulation.
The depletion of the rivers, lakes and aquifers is because of population growth, higher usage, climate change and a severe drought that has spread throughout the Midwest and Southwest for the past three years.
The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), basing its analysis on more than 25,000 wells, reports almost 47 percent of wells that use fracking were developed in areas with high or extremely high water stress levels; 92 percent of all gas wells in Colorado are in extremely high-stressed regions; In Texas, 51 percent are in high or extremely high stress water regions
Water is so critical to fracking that oil and gas companies have been paying premium prices, as much as $1,000 to $2,000 for about 326,000 gallons (an acre foot) and outbidding farmers in the drought-ravaged parts of the country for the water; the normal price is about $30 to $100 for the same amount. Oil and gas drillers have also been trucking in water to the Midwest and southwest from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
If farmers have to pay more for water, they will raise the prices of their product. If they can't get enough water, because the energy companies are taking as much as they can get, they grow fewer crops and reduce the size of their livestock herds; this, also, will force food prices up. It's a simple case of supply and demand.
But, there are other problems. Some individual farmers and owners of corporate farms who have large water resources often sell that water to the energy companies; they can get more money for the water and leave their fields barren than they can get for growing crops and selling them to distributors.
Another reality may be driving food prices higher.
Beneath North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan is the Bakken Shale. Oil in the shale was discovered in 1953; however, using conventional drilling methods was marginally profitable until five years ago with the development of horizontal fracking.
The Bakken Shale lies directly below one of the most fertile wheat fields in the United States. North Dakota farmers produce almost three-fourths of all amber durum harvested in the United States. High in protein and one of the strongest of all wheat, amber durum is a base for most of the world's food production. The destruction of the wheat fields, from a combination of global warming and fracking, will cause production to decline, prices to rise, and famine to increase.
Energy company land men, buying land and negotiating mineral rights leases, became as pesky as aphids in the wheat fields. However, the land men didn't have to do much sweet talking with the farmers, many of whom were hugging bankruptcy during the Great Recession. The farmers yielded parts of their land to the energy companies in exchange for immediate income and the promise of future royalties. By November 2012 there were 7,791 wells in North Dakota. Energy companies are expected to mine more than 15.2 billion gallons this year.
In Pennsylvania, 17,000 acres have already been lost to the development of natural gas fracking. That land is not likely to be productive for several years, according to a study by the Penn State Extension Office. The presence of natural gas drilling companies has also led to decreased milk and cheese production, according to Penn State researchers Riley Adams and Dr. Timothy Kelsey.
Beneath some of the nation's richest agricultural land in draught-ravaged central California lies the Monterrey Shale that holds about two-thirds of the country's estimated shale oil reserves, about 650 trillion gallons. The land men have already arrived to buy leases and set up what is likely to be the biggest oil and gas boom in the country.
More than 200 different crops are grown in the central valley, including about 70 percent of the world's supply of almonds, most of the grape production and 90 percent of all domestic wine sold in the United States. The Sun-Maid farm cooperative, headquartered in the Central Valley, is one of the world's largest producers of raisins and dried fruits.
When the politicians unleashed Big Energy to frack the nation and extract gas, they parroted industry claims that extensive drilling would improve the economy, lower natural gas prices and help make the United States energy independent from having to import foreign oil. What is happening is that the companies have purchased or leased too much land, are in heavy debt to the banks and have a glut of natural gas that has forced the prices to the lowest level in almost 10 years.
The solution is that these patriotic corporations, to reduce the glut and force domestic residential prices back up as the mined gas becomes less available, have developed extensive plans to export natural gas to countries that will pay significantly higher prices than what is currently charged in the American market.
There is one problem. The U.S. can't import water.
(Walter Brasch, an author from Bloomsburg, writes "Wanderings" for each Sunday edition.)