Friday, January 24, 2014

Adverse Fracking Impacts, and Blaming the Environmentalists?

Commentary by S. Tom Bond:
"Retired Chemistry Professor and Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV”

Why "Environmentalists" are blamed for fracking complaints and Extent of surface damage by shale drilling

Establishment” articles do not do justice to the nature and extent of local complaints at the point of extraction of shale gas and oil.  Although they range from property devaluation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to health complaints by thousands, they are usually lumped together as complaints coming from “environmental activists.”  The typical well drilling platform takes up to five acres perhaps covered with 18 inches of crushed stone and requires access road(s) adequate for heavy trucks to pass, rocked for passage in all weather. Noise, dust, odors and light at night can be expected to continue for years, since it is the practice to drill one well and partially exhaust it before going on to the next of six or eight.

Further, a pipeline right of way to connect to the transmission line is required, and rights of way for transmission lines, compressor stations and stations to remove natural gas liquids, higher members of the hydrocarbon series which are difficult to move by pipeline. Pipelines cut through the forest and will prevent timber production for the three or four decades the boom lasts, and seventy or eighty years afterward, if trees can be induced to grow on them.  The rocked surfaces are rendered unproductive forever.  One 140 square mile tract (recently announced) is planned to have 350 drilling pads, one for each 250 acres.

This kind of development is a vast heavy industry spread over the landscape.  The Marcellus shale and the Utica below it cover 100,000 square miles.  Shale drilling is an explosive development, using techniques that started up from the first working well that used a combination of directional drilling, the new slick-water fracturing and other new techniques.  It went directly to large scale use without a scale up process or any kind of proper scientific vetting.

Air pollution is notoriously produced by evaporation from ponds which hold the drilling fluids, from compressor stations and from flaring, which is the name given to the process of burning off the first gas from each well, which last days or weeks.  Colorado, Texas and Southwestern Pennsylvania have well documented problems.  Complaints about water pollution are largely ignored, but provide a steady business for the courts.  One West Virginia law firm recently announced it is hiring 400 new lawyers.  One citizen’s group in Pennsylvania has collected over 1200 complaints about air and water pollution.

So why do “environmentalists” get all blame?  Environmentalists already existed, before shale drilling had organization.  A lot of people didn’t know it, like the dumb geologist who said, “They came out of the woodwork.”  Some have been working on many small projects, and the sister “big problem” in West Virginia, mountaintop removal.

Environmentalists have been a convenient “whipping boy” for a long time. (The prince of a royal family was above being spanked, so another boy was appointed to take his whipping for him.) People who have tunnel vision about making money, whether in the hydrocarbon business, chemical business, those who have potential product liability, butcher business, factory farms, you name it, can’t let health, neighbors, and devaluation of the neighborhood stand in the way of profit. The industry has done well in projecting a “nerdy,” impractical environmentalist image.

A second reason is that the people suffering property loss are not organized.  Things have gotten to the stage people not only take a loss but in some places can’t sell their property at all, because banks won’t lend when there is an “industrial operation”  (gas drilling) on the land.  Nobody wants to pay for dead livestock and no one will pay for stock that aren’t doing well.  Farm organizations are hopeless in this matter.  To some extent they have to “go along to get along” in the legislature, to get the things they want.  To some extent the leadership of farm organizations are older men who work themselves to death and drop off to sleep watching Fox News at night.  And to some extent the big farmers want to chance the “big payoff,” they think they will be able to farm the rest of their land.  And to some extent “you can’t fight city hall” is a motive.

What about health complaints?  When this thing first came down rural doctors were subject to new causes of health complaints.  Some of them just fell back on that old standby, “It’s all in your head,” particularly when the complaints came from women.  Men tend to get around more and get away from the influences and “tough it out.”  Pennsylvania passed Act 13, which made it difficult for doctors to operate the way the usually do, which is supported by a strict ethical code.   That situation may be up for change, due to the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision.

But the shale drilling business doesn’t have to prove a darn thing.  Every thing that comes out of their collective mouth is received wisdom, regardless of how stupid it is.  Take the claim “We’ve been using hydraulic fracturing since 1960.” or whenever it was.  They don’t say “Of course it has changed over time.”  I have had four 5000 foot wells drilled and fractured on my farm during my tenure here, four fifths of the way down to the Marcellus.  A family friend took care of the pit for the most recent. I have seen several Marcellus wells in progress.

The most obvious difference is the scale.  The pits of my Benson wells were just large enough to park a pickup in, The Marcellus wells require enough to park a whole fleet of the water-brine trucks used now. There was none of this “slick water” ingredient stuff either. Nor the week-long almost constant delivery of water needed for “high volume” fracturing, with it’s attendant dust and accidents.  And no need to lie about contents of the frack solution.  Have you heard that polymerized ethylene glycol is “like antifreeze?”  The implication is that it is harmless.  It’s interesting to look up ethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol. The executive who drank a glass of frack fluid would vomit if he read up on what was in it.
I wonder how many toxicologist there are in the entire industry?  Probably none who are familiar with endocrine disrupters.