The question concerned the exemptions granted the oil and gas
industry courtesy of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempts oil and
gas companies from Safe Drinking Water Act requirements when they
inject fluids—including some carcinogens—into the earth at high
pressure, a process known as hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing
is specifically exempted, yet Palmerton denied it and when pressed, put
on a show of frustration that the question was unreasonable and I was
This guy is as comfortable misrepresenting facts in person to
auditoriums full of students as he is in writing those
Fractured Fairy Tales
In his July 7 letter, David Palmerton, of the Palmerton Group
Environmental Consulting Services, a champion of natural gas drilling,
would have us believe that drilling for natural gas is nothing new and
very safe. He accuses Josh Fox of misrepresenting the facts in his
volatile documentary film Gasland. Yet Mr. Palmerton himself only presents the facts halfway.
“Hydraulic fracturing is nothing new,” he says. “It’s been safely
used on more than 1 million wells over the past 60 years.” Sounds good,
but it’s just not so.
Hydraulic fracturing, as practiced in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, West
Virginia and Texas, has never been done in New York state. The more
technical term for the new practice of hydraulic fracturing is High
Volume Slickwater Horizontal Hydrofracturing (HVHF). HVHF involves
using millions of gallons of water per well. Six to 12 wells are
grouped together on a single well pad. Modest estimates of truck trips
to build the pad for the rigs, build the roads for the trucks, haul the
water and chemicals to the site, and carry the flowback fluid to
wherever it’s going to be disposed of is around 1,200 truck trips per
well. These are big trucks: tankers, flatbeds and containers. That’s a
lot of noise and diesel fumes and wear on our roads. That’s a lot of
toxic chemicals stockpiled and handled in our fields. That’s a whole
lot of water. That’s all new.
At this scale, hydraulic fracturing is something completely new to
New York state. There have been major problems with the process
elsewhere. Pennsylvania has 19 new pages of regulations in response to
accidents. The Environmental Protection Agency has been ordered to do a
study to look into the safety of drilling for gas and drinking water.
There are moratoriums being put in place all over the East. All that
action is not in response to this new practice being safe, Mr.
He states, “Fluid made up of 99.5 percent water and sand is pumped
into the hole to create small fractures in carefully targeted sections
of shale rock. When the fluid is removed, this releases the natural gas
and allows it to rise to the earth’s surface via the self-contained
system.” It sounds good, but it’s half the story.
You fail to mention the vast quantities of water needed to fracture
each well. You fail to mention the hazardous chemicals you add to the
water. Most importantly, you fail to acknowledge the fluid that becomes
toxic waste once the rock is fractured. Each well will use between 3
million to 8 million gallons of water. Twenty tons of chemicals will be
added to each million gallons of water (.05-percent by weight).
By the very function of the process, injecting the fluid under great
pressure, fracturing the shale to release the methane, the fluid also
releases and takes up heavy metals, salts, volatile organic compounds
and radioactivity. When it “rises back up to the surface,” as you so
poetically describe, it is something other than 99.5 percent water.
Dangerous stuff, perfectly safe hibernating in the shale below us, is
now in the solution. The “frack fluid,” or flowback fluid, becomes
twice as salty as seawater, radioactive and full of known carcinogens.
Tens of millions of gallons of what used to be our groundwater, our
lakes and our rivers becomes toxic waste.
A “self-contained system” sounds tidy, but there isn’t one. The
toxic, briny flowback fluid is pumped into open pits lined with plastic
or into holding tanks. There is no acceptable way to dispose of it. In
Texas, flowback fluid was injected deep underground, under pressure,
causing seismic activity registering 3.3 on the Richter scale. In
Pennsylvania, flowback fluid has killed trees, fish, cattle, and it has
corroded equipment at municipal treatment facilities. There is nowhere
in New York, nor anywhere else, able to treat millions of gallons of
toxic flowback fluid.
Also, a variable percentage of that toxic waste does not rise back
up at all. It remains deep underground, subject to the explosive forces
of fracking nearby wells, seismic activity and natural fractures in the
shale. This subterranean toxic waste is subject to the integrity of the
cement and steel casings that protect the aquifers—our drinking water.
Salt corrodes always. Capped wells repressurize sometimes. How long are
those steel and cement casings going to hold up, Mr. Palmerton? Shall
we look to BP and the Gulf of Mexico for that answer? Shall we look to
our highways and bridges? You and I and the Palmerton Group may be long
gone when those casings fail and our groundwater is contaminated. Our
grandchildren will have to figure that one out, I guess.
“Here’s hoping when it comes to decisions about our future in the
real world, we rely on the facts. It is important that we proceed in a
manner that is safe and responsible…” That sounds straight up good, Mr.
Palmerton. But what sounds even better is energy that is sustainable,
and does not rely on a frantic dead-end chase for fossil fuels, which
is proving to be devastating to our earth, air and water. Solar, wind,
biomass, geothermal energies—these are for the long run. If we are to
be safe and responsible, we must develop renewable and sustainable
energy right now. That is the legacy we could leave our grandchildren.