For decades, natural gas (methane) deposits were tapped by single wells drilled vertically over large, free-flowing pockets of gas. Then came fracking, a water- and chemical-intensive method that promised the profitable extraction of natural gas trapped in shale. Increasing production of an energy source long touted as greener than coal seems like a win, but fracking is a Faustian bargain: According to a new Cornell University study*, the sum process appears to be worse for climate change than the coal industry and is more toxic to the environment and human health.
One fracking well uses an average of 2 million to 8 million gallons of water and 10,000 to 40,000 gallons of chemicals. The water used is contaminated forever.
Sixty percent of those chemicals can harm the brain and nervous system, 40 percent are known endocrine disrupters, 30 percent are suspected carcinogens, 30 percent are developmental toxicants.
Fracking isn’t limited to the eastern United States – the practice is widespread.
In Colorado, where the industry has a long history and is expanding rapidly, there are 48,000 active wells and 5,000 documented spills of toxic chemicals to date. Over 47 percent of the spills from January 2003 to March 2008 contaminated groundwater or surface water, according to the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
Long hailed as a hot spot for renewable energy, Colorado could be powered almost entirely by wind, solar and geothermal if we put our minds and investments to it. The technology and know-how to move to a nontoxic, renewable energy economy exists today, and yet we choose not to.
Casey Sheahan is Patagonia’s chief executive officer.
The following groups are working hard to oppose fracking in their neighborhoods:
Erie Rising In January of 2012, April Beach learned that for six years she lived a few hundred yards from two open-air evaporation pits. The water in the pits contains toxic fracking chemicals used to release natural gas from rock formations. As the water evaporates, the chemicals move in whatever direction the wind blows.
Sick on and off for years, April testified to the EPA that oil and gas wells surrounding neighborhoods in Erie, Colo., were too close to people’s homes. “Initially, nobody was listening,” she says. When Encana began building eight well pads adjacent to two elementary schools and a daycare center, she organized a meeting. Fifteen parents came, all with children. They talked about the mounting evidence that fracking chemicals are making their way into our water and air, and about the oil and gas industry’s exemption from laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“Out of that meeting emerged Erie Rising,” says Wendy Leonard, one of the four founding members. “We decided to do everything we could to bring awareness to the impacts of oil and gas drilling in our community.” They held public meetings, handed out flyers and hand delivered 21,000 petitions to the Denver headquarters of Encana Oil and Gas, kids in tow. “Hell, I thought. We can stop this,” says Leonard, laughing (sort of).
“The four of us are from completely different walks of life,” adds Beach. “I’m a Conservative Republican. My family receives royalties from the oil and gas industry.”
All four of them work during naptimes.
Encana currently operates 350 wells in Erie, a town of 9.6-square miles and 20,000 people. Well pads dot the landscape. “If you’re driving down a main road, you’ll see one every 30 seconds,” says Leonard. In the neighboring town of Longmont, residents voted to ban all drilling inside city limits. The state sued to overturn the ban. Other towns are now considering local regulations.
Beach will testify against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “The problem is that the COGCC is given authority to promote the industry, and they are also commissioned to look into our health,” she says. “So right now, the state of Colorado does not appear to have an ethical system in place to protect public health. We’re left coming back again and again to prove that our health is at risk.”
She adds, “None of the experts who testify have experience living by a well. For those of us living next to wells, it’s too late. How long does this have to go on until we as a country are willing to stop?” TAKE ACTION: erierising.com
Thompson Divide Coalition A microbiologist once told Brook LeVan that his water was the purest, healthiest water she’d ever seen.
LeVan lives communally on a 240-acre working ranch, south of Carbondale, Colorado, in the Crystal River Valley. His operation grows food for 200 families and runs a raw milk program.
“Our food tastes better – it is better – because we are creating health in the soil. We use surface water to irrigate our hay, and that turns into our milk. Everything goes back into the soil. And we can’t do that without the pristine water source that we have,” LeVan says.
The rapaciousness of drilling and hydraulic fracturing across Colorado is threatening LeVan’s model, one that more and more of us would like to adopt. “It undermines the possibility to rebuild in this country what really made the country strong in the first place,” LeVan says. “We had a brilliant network of local hubs of production and distribution with the small-scale family farm all over the country. When we industrialized, it gutted the country from the inside out.”
His group the Thompson Divide Coalition has armed itself with extensive water quality tests to prove the baseline purity of their water source. If fracking chemicals permeate Thompson Creek, farms and ranches up and down the valley will disappear. “What the drilling would do, and the puncturing of the aquifers, is rob us of the chance to actually create a locally resilient foodshed. And that will make us even further dependent on their energy to bring in our food.”
LeVan’s neighbors in the North Fork Valley around Paonia are currently fighting to save their organic farms, vineyards and orchards from the fracking frenzy that is moving across Colorado. “They’re going to destroy a thousand-year-old water purification system and leave us with a toxic mess, one we can no longer derive a healthy existence from,” he says. “You can’t drink oil. You can’t irrigate your crops with gas. Water is our life’s blood.”
TAKE ACTION: savethompsondivide.org
*When Patagonia went to press with this essay (five months before its publication), the Cornell study referred to here was one of the first to raise the important issue of methane emissions and hydraulic fracking. However, almost right away, there was peer debate about the study's conclusions, especially its comparison between the climate change impacts of fracking and coal. At the time of publication, we were unaware of these concerns, and we’ll continue to track the research going forward. For more information visit Our Common Waters campaign.