Wasting water for corporate profits
For National Drinking Water Week (May 5 to 11), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) put out a press release to ask Pennsylvanians not only "to make every drop count," but also "to learn how to better protect and conserve their water."
The release gave a few brief suggestions of how "to keep pollution out of water sources" and how "to conserve Pennsylvania's water sources." It even gave a huge puff to Gov. Tom Corbett, who said the DEP "is committed to water protection efforts that are vital to ensuring the health of the public and Pennsylvania's economy."
Here are a few things the release did not state.
Corbett, two months after he took office in January 2011, declared he wanted to "make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom." To do that meant he and the Republican-controlled Legislature had to create, with the help of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), what became Act 13, which Corbett signed on Valentine's Day 2012. It was a sweetheart gift to the natural gas exploration industry, the same one that had donated more than $1.8 million to Corbett's previous political campaigns.
And so the state officially recognized and encouraged the development of high-volume horizontal fracturing. Fracking, as the process is better known, is the controversial method of drilling into a rock formation as deep as 12,000 feet below the earth's surface. After drilling down vertically, the company creates a perforated lateral borehole, about 90 degrees from the vertical hole, which fractures the shale and rock for up to about 6,000 feet to open channels and force out natural gas and fossil fuels.
Proppants, as much as two million pounds of silica sand, keep the fractures open to allow the gas to flow from the shale into the well bore. Chemical additives, most of them toxic and labeled as carcinogens, prevent pipe corrosion and help force the sand and water into the site.
But it's the water that is critical to the success of fracking. Each well requires between three and nine million gallons of fresh water for the first frack. A well can be fracked additional times.
Now, let's pretend that each well pad and the associated infrastructure (roads, pipelines, etc.), which carve out eight acres, don't contribute to fragmentation that affects wildlife and the ecological balance of nature. Let's also pretend that there wasn't a 7 percent failure of the cement casings in the past two years that, at least in theory, protects the billions of gallons of water, toxic fluids and sand from leaking into the earth. Let's pretend there can never be any migration of all that toxic fluid into aquifers and somehow into the wells of about two million Pennsylvanians.
Let's also pretend that the water brought up from fracking doesn't contain chemicals, compounds and radioactive waste that was disturbed by the process. Let's pretend that the billions of gallons of this toxic mixture brought up isn't put into open storage pits, where it could evaporate into the air or leak from plastic liners of the pits and into the ground. Let's pretend there are no problems with the current method to get rid of that toxic waste that is injected back into the ground, and that doing so won't cause more pollution and, possibly, a series of small earthquakes.
Let's stretch our level of credulity and pretend there is no air, water or ground pollution, and that there are no health and environmental effects from fracking. Let's really stretch our level of naiveté and pretend that, unlike water used by farmers that goes into the ground or air and can be recycled, or that water used by individuals that is flushed into a sewer plant, processed and then returned to the earth, that the waste water of fracking is also reusable.
Disregard the evidence and accept what we are told by the industry and politicians, who swear upon stacks of $100 bills that fracking is safe and controlled. There is still the question of water, the most critical part of fracking.
In 2005, there were only eight unconventional wells in Pennsylvania. By the end of 2012, there were 6,258 wells. That would mean at least 44 billion gallons of water, most of it taken from the state's rivers, was used to frack the environment. That doesn't include all the water that is spilled and unusable. So, while the state wants individuals to conserve every drop of water, it was also encouraging out-of-state megacorporations to grab as much as they could in order to continue to frack the state.
However, it's the last sentence of the DEP press release that may be the most important. "This year," say the DEP's PR people, "marks the 39th anniversary of the Safe Water Drinking Act, the main federal law that ensures the quality of drinking water in the United States."
What the press release didn't say is that the Safe Water Drinking Act doesn't apply to the natural gas industry. In 2005 - by a 249-183 vote in the House and an 85-12 vote in the Senate - Congress exempted the oil and natural gas industry from the Safe Water Drinking Act. That exemption applied to the "construction of new well pads and the accompanying new roads and pipelines."
Vice President Dick Cheney, whose promotion of big business and opposition to environmental policies is well-documented, had pushed for that exemption. His hand-picked "energy task force," composed primarily of industry representatives, concluded that fracking was safe. Cheney had been CEO of Halliburton, one of the world's largest energy companies, now headquartered in the tax haven Cayman Islands; the exemption became known as the Halliburton Loophole.
The fracking industry, by congressional action, mostly during the George W. Bush Administration, is also exempt from all or parts of the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Another federal law that was created to protect Americans was the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which created the "superfund" that holds companies financially liable for causing hazardous waste. However, Congress specifically exempted oil and natural gas industries from CERCLA.
The DEP and the Corbett administration can issue all the press releases they want. But they can't deny the reality that while they want individuals to save every drop of water, the state officially encourages the use and waste of water in its mindless race to excavate all the gas it can get - in the false assumption it will create jobs, improve the economy, lower gas prices and make the U.S. energy independent - but at the cost of the health of the people and the destruction of their environment.
(Walter Brasch, an author and retired university professor from Bloomsburg, writes "Wanderings" for each Sunday edition.)