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Notes from Underground: Fracking: The Source of the Problem

Adam Arnold, September 21, 2017

Fights over pipeline construction are not new, but they have become central of late to the debate between safe, sustainable energy and extractive, polluting, fossil-fuel reliance. While many factors contribute to the increased focus on pipelines, chief among them is the boom in natural gas production in the US, brought about via developments in fracking techniques, technology, and deregulation, which has led to a demand for new pipeline construction.

Along with the boom has come greater awareness: more spills, leaks, and explosions, and a simultaneous increased use of Eminent Domain to put the land of private citizens in the hands of private corporations. The fracking/pipeline issue’s growing profile comes as no surprise.

Through the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, the issue has grown from a localized concern into a national bone of contention.

The Latest Future Blight

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is intended to serve one purpose. That purpose is not, as its advocates would claim, to transport fracked natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the Midwest to markets in North Carolina and Virginia. Rather, it is to transport money from the public into the pockets of fossil-fuel executives.

The question is not one of legality, per se, because much legal wrangling has taken place over the decades to assure that the law permits this kind of suspect dealing. But other questions relevant to GAP’s mission are notably present: fraud, government waste, abuse of power, and threats to public health and the environment. The battle over fracking and pipelines has become increasingly public, but the resolution is sure to require truth-tellers coming forward to share their observations from behind the scenes of an approval process that could be described as corrupt, or at least lacking in effective oversight.

In the meantime, providing the public with information about the destructive chain of fracking, pipelines, and undeserved profits is the best way to forestall the wasteful cycle before it becomes an intractable death spiral of outdated, unsustainable energy.

Throwing Precaution to the Wind

Fracking is treated by its proponents as a harmless, effective method for providing energy, when in fact it is an activity fraught with risk.

While the practice of hydraulic fracturing can be traced back over 150 years, production grew exponentially starting around the year 2000, when demand – based on a desire for energy independence – met with technological advances, such as horizontal drilling. In all cases, though, precaution was not a priority. The benefits of domestic fossil fuel production were tangible; the risks, because they had not been adequately explored, were easily ignored.

A chicken-and-egg question may be posed regarding fracking and deregulation: Did fracking become ubiquitous because of slack regulation, or did regulations slacken to accommodate the fracking industry? However one wishes to parse the onset of widespread hydraulic fracturing, the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” undeniably provided a pivotal moment.

The law – the Energy Policy Act of 2005 – says that fracking companies may pump virtually whatever they want into the earth, essentially unchecked. Under this legal giveaway to the fracking industry, companies are able to keep secret the recipes for the chemical soup they spurt into the ground to extract trapped oil and gas. Moreover, any suit concerning the poisoning of water through the spilling of such chemicals is null and void; that is, fracking chemicals are exempt from the requirements of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act – not to mention the Clean Air Act, CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, aka Superfund), and other regulations.

The “Loophole” nickname comes from a company central to the increase in fracking – Halliburton – which, not at all coincidentally, had been headed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney prior to his role in the George W. Bush Administration. The law was passed despite votes against it by the likes of Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton – but with a vote for it by young Senator Barack Obama, among many others who should have known better.

As noted, the supposed need for more pipelines is the offspring of the natural gas boom that resulted from the development of modern hydraulic fracturing technology and techniques. Without fracked gas (and, to a lesser extent, oil), any suggestion that new pipelines need to be built would be laughable on its surface (rather than, poetically enough, slightly sub-surface, as it currently appears). Other methods, including minor extensions and upgrades of existing pipelines, would suffice. But a chain of dubious supply and artificial demand is being forged at the expense of human health, environmental health, and sustainability. The “need” for more pipelines is an invention, the foundation of which is the risky, poorly-understood practice of fracking.

Is Fracking Risky and Poorly Understood?

The simple answer: “Duh.”  A more nuanced answer will require three hands.

On one hand there is the risk that the chemicals, themselves clouded in noxious mystery, could enter the water supply and pose a risk to human health, agriculture, and the wellbeing of vital ecosystems. This risk is as uncertain as the makeup of the “secret formulae” of the chemical cocktails companies inject into the ground in massive quantities to free up trapped bits of gas or oil, but as certain as the fact that deliberately fracturing underground rock formations will eventually  create significant seepage into clean-water aquifers, if it hasn’t already.

On the second hand, there are the obvious, measurable threats and harms, from flaming tap water to increased frequency of earthquakes, and the impact of methane – natural gas’ principle component, a potent greenhouse gas – on the global climate. Leaks and spills of gas, oil, tainted water, and toxic fracking chemicals are also found in the “tangible threats” hand.

In that aforementioned third hand we can place generally unknown potential consequences – seismic, hydro-geologic, bio-chemical, and climatic, to note a few. Unknown risk should be our biggest concern, but instead it is something willfully ignored by the fracking industry and its public- and private-sector supporters.

Although the experts know just where to find the trapped gas and how to get it out of the ground, they cannot say with any useful degree of certainty that the risks are insignificant. That kind of risk – the risk to public health and environmental sustainability – is not their central concern. Their concern is financial risk, and they’ve got that problem solved.

Cash Flow

As the recent report from the Rachel Carson Council entitled Blast Zone describes, pipelines like the Atlantic Coast behemoth are self-serving creations of the fossil-fuel industry. They are  not intended for the benefit of the public. Rather, they are there to perpetuate a system that is as cynical as it is profitable.

The companies building the pipeline are also, directly or indirectly, the companies producing and buying the fuel it transports. By creating its own market, the pipeline earns a guaranteed dividend from federal and state governments, regardless of genuine need or benefit, of impact on human health and the environment, and of better, safer, sustainable, and ultimately cheaper alternatives.

Blast Zone explains the economic situation in detail, describing the invention of a market where one at best marginally exists, and lays out the physical and economic risk of living near the pipeline – the “blast zone” of the report’s title.

The report also describes the dangers at the end of the cycle, exploring the full spectrum of fracking’s impact, including the damage resulting not from fracking itself, but from the disposal of wastewater – the greatest risk in terms of earthquakes and tainted water for drinking and irrigation.

Most importantly, the report offers alternatives, rebutting industry arguments and showing that efficiency and renewable energy are not only cleaner options than fracked gas for replacing other fossil fuels, but also make better sense economically, in terms of jobs, cost of maintenance, cost to consumers, and long-term viability.

The industry wants to lock the United States into an artificial, over-priced, environmentally-harmful, and outdated reliance on dirty energy. The manipulation of government policy to that end is a moral crime, even if it is legal under current laws.

Break the Chain before the Chain Breaks Us

Instead of showing concern for the consequences of their actions, the financial beneficiaries of fracking forge a chain that they know is finite, but hope to stretch as far as they can. The chain involves tapping more oil and gas from the ground wherever possible and demanding more pipelines. Once pipelines are in place, companies argue that they must be used or they will become blight. So, more oil and gas are called for, even if there is no natural call for them.

The Trump Administration has made no bones about its stances on energy and environmental issues: an anachronistic support for the exploitation of fossil fuels at the expense of public resource preservation is on display across all federal agencies. In spite, or rather because of that, the issue of fracking remains hotly debated, along with the pipelines it feeds.

While the current administration seems determined to press ahead with environmental degradation and threats to human health in support of short-term economic gains (contrary to any reasonable long-term analysis), there is increasing hope that a frustrated public will resist such unwise plans, and frustrated workers – in the public and private sectors – will step forward with the damning truth.