Fracking–the process the oil and gas industry uses to extract fossil fuel as much as two miles below the ground–may directly impact the nation’s water supply, reduce water-based recreational and sports activity, and lead to an increase in the cost of food.
The cocktail soup required for each well requires about two million pounds of silica sand, as much as 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals, and three to nine million gallons of fresh water. There are more than 500,000 active wells in the country.
In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Texas energy companies used about 26.5 billion gallons of water. Energy companies drilling Pennsylvania used the second greatest amount of water, followed by Colorado and Arkansas. Nuclear plants, which use more water, can recycle most of it. Because frack wastewater is toxic, oil and gas companies can’t recycle the contaminated water.
The water is provided by companies that draw up to three million gallons a day from rivers and lakes, by individuals who sell water from their ponds, and by municipalities. Steubenville, Ohio, is tapping one of its reservoirs to sell up to 700,000 gallons of water every day for five years to Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest players in the fracking industry.
Big EnergyHowever, fresh water is not unlimited.
Beginning about five years ago, the water in the nation’s aquifers has been decreasing significantly. The depletion since 2008, according to Leonard Konikow, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. is about three times the rate as between 1900 through 2008.
Significant reductions in water availability are now common for the 1,450 mile long Colorado River, which provides water to about 40 million people in California and the southwest, including the agriculture-rich Imperial Desert of southeastern California. Lake Mead, a part of the Colorado system, provides water to Las Vegas and the Nevada desert communities; its water level is close to the point where the Department of the Interior will declare a water shortage and impose strict water-use regulation.
The depletion of the rivers, lakes, and aquifers is because of population growth, higher usage, climate change, and a severe drought that has spread throughout the Midwest and southwest for the past three years.
The C oalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), basing its analysis upon more than 25,000 wells, reports almost 47 percent of wells that use fracking were developed in areas with high or extremely high water stress levels; 92 percent of all gas wells in Colorado are in extremely high-stressed regions; In Texas, 51 percent are in high or extremely high stress water regions.
Water is so critical to fracking that oil and gas companies have been paying premium prices, as much as $1,000–$2,000 for about 326,000 gallons (an acre foot) and outbidding farmers in the drought-ravaged parts of the country for the water; the normal price is about $30–$100 for the same amount. Oil and gas drillers have also been trucking in water to the Midwest and southwest from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania. The companies are “going to pay what they need to pay,” said Dr. Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.
If farmers have to pay more for water, they will raise the prices of their product. If they can’t get enough water, because the energy companies are taking as much as they can get, they grow fewer crops and reduce the size of their livestock herds; this, also, will force food prices up. It’s a simple case of supply and demand.
But, there are other problems. Some farmers and owners of corporate farms who have large water resources often sell that water to the energy companies; they can get more money for the water and leave their fields barren than they can get for growing crops and selling them to wholesalers and distributors.
Another reality may be driving food prices higher.
Fossil fuel mining and agriculture have always co-existed. But, that is changing.
Beneath about 200,000 square miles of North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan, lying between 4,500 and 7,500 feet below the surface of the earth, is the Bakken Shale. Oil in the shale was discovered in 1953; however, because the shale is only 13 to 140 feet thick, using conventional drilling methods were marginally profitable until five years ago with the development of horizontal fracking.
The Bakken Shale lies directly below one of the most fertile wheat fields in the United States. North Dakota farmers produce almost three-fourths of all amber durum harvested in the United States. High in protein and one of the strongest of all wheat, amber durum is a base for most of the world’s food production. It is used for all pastas, pizza crusts, couscous, and numerous kinds of breads. Red durum, a variety, is used to feed cattle. North Dakota farmers in late Summer harvest about 50 million bushels (about 1.4 million tons) of amber durum, almost three-fourths of all amber durum produced in the United States. About one-third of the production is exported, primarily to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Destruction of the wheat fields, from a combination of global warming and fracking, will cause production to decline, prices to rise, and famine to increase.
Energy company landmen, buying land and negotiating min eral rights leases, became as pesky as aphids in the wheat fields. However, the landmen didn’t have to do much sweet talking with the farmers, many of whom were hugging bankruptcy during the Great Recession. The farmers yielded parts of their land to the energy companies in exchange for immediate income and the promise of future royalties. By November 2012 there were 7,791 wells in North Dakota .
In 2006, oil production in the North Dakota fields was about 92 million gallons. Energy companies are expected to mine more than 15.2 billion gallons this year. Drilling for oil also yields natural gas; there are about two trillion barrels of natural gas in the shale.
In Pennsylvania, 17,000 acres have already been lost to the development of natural gas fracking. That land is not likely to be productive for several years because of “compaction and landscape reshaping,” according to a study by the Penn State Extension Office. U.S. Geological Survey scientists conclude there is a “low probability that the disturbed land will revert back to a natural state in the near future.”
The presence of natural gas drilling companies has also led to decreased milk and cheese production. Penn State researchers Riley Adams and Dr. Timothy Kelsey concluded: ” Changes in dairy cow numbers also seem to be associated with the level of Marcellus shale drilling activity.” Counties with 150 or more Marcellus shale wells on average experi enced an 18.7 percent decrease in dairy cows, compared to only a 1.2 percent average decrease in counties with no Marcellus wells.”
Beneath some of the nation’s richest agricultural land in drought-ravaged central California lies the Monterrey Shale, a 1,750 square mile formation that holds about two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale oil reserves, about 15.4 billion barrels (647 trillion gallons). The landmen have already arrived to buy leases and set up what is likely to be the biggest oil and gas boom in the country.
More than 200 different crops are grown in the central valley, including about 70 percent of the world’s supply of almonds, most of the grape production and 90 percent of all domestic wine sold in the United States. The Sun-Maid farm cooperative, headquartered in the Central Valley, is one of the world’s largest producers of raisins and dried fruits.
When the politicians unleashed Big Energy to frack the nation and extract gas, they parroted industry claims that extensive drilling would improve the economy, lower natural gas prices, and help make the United States energy independent from having to import foreign oil. What is happening is that the companies have purchased far too much land, are in heavy debt with the banks, and have a glut of natural gas that has forced the prices to the lowest level in almost 10 years.
The solution is that these patriotic corporations, to reduce the glut and force domestic residential prices back up as the mined gas becomes less available, are developing extensive plans to export natural gas to countries that will pay significantly higher prices than what is currently charged in the American market.
There is one problem. The United States can’t import water.
If you externalize the costs of a business activity, it means other people pay the costs—environmental, social and otherwise—and you get the profits. It goes on all the time in extractive industries such as oil and natural gas and mining. And, it is also a natural strategy for manufacturers who dump their pollution into the air and the water.
It’s even practiced in finance where the executives of Wall Street banks have managed to collect the bonuses made off a phony boom in the last decade and saddle taxpayers with the losses of the inevitable bust caused by bad and often fraudulent loans, misleading derivative contracts, and leveraged speculation in stocks and commodities.
If the loopholes are there, you can be assured that people in business will take advantages of them. That’s exactly what is happening in the business of shale gas drilling. Drillers are exempt from federal clean air and water regulations under a bill shepherded through Congress in 2005 by none other former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney in his capacity as the then vice president of the United States. (Halliburton is one of the world’s largest providers of drilling fluids for shale gas drilling and other oil and gas drilling operations.)
That means the drillers can externalize the environmental costs of these hazardous fluids and other materials needed to fracture the shale and thereby free the natural gas. They can foist those costs on nearby residents in the form of ruined water supplies, toxic air pollution, poisoned land, and health problems for humans and animals.
The environmental and health horrors associated with shale gas drilling are now in the news on a daily basis. But I have begun to think about the issue in another way. All of these externalized costs have an energy cost. And, the toxic fracturing fluid—millions of gallons of which are pumped into each and every shale gas well—will stretch out the time frame during which such costs are borne.
No one knows what will happen to the half of that fluid which never returns to the surface during operations. There is concern that it could migrate to drinking water aquifers and destroy the drinking water not just for the few who happen to live near a drilling site, but for people living in huge swaths of the United States by polluting water sources for large cities such as New York.
Now, of course, that water could be cleaned up if it becomes toxic. Already shale gas drillers are having to provide filtering systems for people whose well water has become contaminated. In some cases, even this isn’t enough, and water must now be trucked in to families whose water is no longer fit to drink even with filtering.
In order to judge whether shale gas will provide any net energy to society, we must first decide where to set its system boundaries. It is hard to know exactly where to stop spatially: Should we, for example, include the energy needs of a family dependent on a worker at a subcontractor that provides software services to the driller? But, it is even harder to know what time frame to use.
One thing is certain. The legacy energy costs of doing shale gas drilling will not disappear anytime soon. The country and its people could be paying the externalized costs of such drilling decades after it ceases to provide any material benefit to society.
If New York city is forced to expend considerable energy to purify its water to clean out toxic chemicals leaching from wells in its watershed 50 years from now, how shall we then judge the presumed bounty of energy that shale gas supposedly represents?
The same kinds of questions have been raised about nuclear energy. If one takes into account the entire energy cost over time of building, operating, decommissioning, and then protecting decommissioned plants and their wastes—wastes that will remain dangerous for conceivably tens of thousands of years—it is possible to understand why some people claim that nuclear energy provides no net energy to society. Rather, it burdens future generations with huge legacy energy costs. We who are alive today get to externalize the energy costs of nuclear power by foisting them on future generations. This is probably the only way that one can consider nuclear power—as it is currently configured—an energy source rather than an energy sink.
I believe we may ultimately find that shale gas is nothing but an energy sink. It will provide net energy for a while to those who are living now while burdening future generations with huge cleanup costs that, in terms of energy, may equal or exceed the energy gain we are currently receiving from this supposedly “clean” energy source.