Freaking Fracking

A sign in protest of fracking (℅ Chiot's Run - Flickr)

I recently watched a documentary that truly horrified me. It’s called Gasland and it’s all about the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that has been going on in the United States. Fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from otherwise impenetrable shale underground. As far as environmental abominations go, fracking might blow the rest of them out of the water.

Gasland was produced in 2010 but it recently came into my radar when I heard of a documentary filmmaker and his crew being arrested for trying to record a public hearing about hydraulic fracturing. Being a thorough journalist, Josh Fox is working on a sequel to Gasland and was hoping to capture the meeting, which was pertinent to his research. He was asked to turn off his camera but when he refused, citing his rights, he was handcuffed and arrested for “unlawful entry.” That’s right, he was arrested for “unlawful entry” into a public hearing.

This happened in a country that prides itself on its Constitution and Bill of Rights, especially the first amendment. You know, the one that encompasses freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Josh Fox knew his constitutional rights but that didn’t stop him from being forcibly removed from a hearing about a serious environmental threat that everyone should be made aware of.

Before watching Fox’s documentary, I knew what fracking was, and knew that it was a catastrophic and irresponsible method for tapping into natural resources (then again, there aren’t many methods for natural resource extraction that aren’t) but Gasland really opened my eyes to what was going on beneath the crust with this filthy process.

Gas companies approach property owners promising large sums of cash for permission to lease pieces of their land to drill for gas. Many are swayed by the sweet smell of Benjamins and so begins the drilling on their land. The companies drill into the earth and force pressurized fracking fluid into the ground, breaking a pathway for the natural gas to escape. This fracking fluid isn’t just water though. It’s made up of hundreds of toxic chemicals – known carcinogens and others.

The fracking fluid comes back up. At least, some of it does. Then it sits in pits of earth until the big bad gas companies come to collect it and haul it away. Meanwhile, the chemical water leaches into the ground and evaporates into the air, doing all kinds of damage in the process. If that isn’t bad enough, the companies actually spray the wastewater into the air as mist so it will evaporate faster. They don’t want to be responsible for hauling too many truckloads of the stuff back. Not that there’s anywhere safe to put gallons of chemical-infused water.

Oh yeah, remember how this disgusting water was forced into the ground to break a pathway for the gas? Well, that pathway isn’t just one smooth channel. Small veins break off from the main corridor, allowing natural gas and leftover wastewater to find its way into the water systems surrounding the gas line. The companies assure people that fracking will change nothing about their way of life. The landowners are told their air and drinking water will be just as it always was. Yet many people who have had their land tapped find themselves sick, find their animals and crops suffering, and find their drinking water so contaminated that it can literally be set on fire.

This is possible because under the Bush administration, gas companies performing hydraulic fracturing for natural gas were (and still are) exempted from adhering to the Safe  Drinking Water Act. That means they are given carte blanche to drill for gas without having to be accountable for their unsafe methods and without being required to seek out and implement safety precautions.

If the process itself isn’t enough of a nightmare, fracking uses some 3.5 million gallons of water! When the world’s supply of fresh water really starts to thin out, what will be thought of such wastefulness? How can squandering and contaminating so much of one of Earth’s most precious resources be justified for the purpose of fracking? When you consider the materials it takes to complete a frack job, do gas companies really reap more than they sow? Does the general public?

In addition to the millions of gallons of water required for fracking, it takes hundreds of truckloads to complete one job. I’d be interested to know how much fuel it takes to make hydraulic fracturing possible. I wouldn’t be surprised to find less gas is procured than is expended on the whole circus itself.

It boggles my mind that in an era that ought to be defined by enlightenment, such foolishness persists. And what for? Great sums of money for a great few. Every human being should have a vested interest in the well-being of the environment. Without it, there is no future. That money can blind in such an alarming way, as is illustrated by fracking, is a terrifying thing.

At a time when the focus should be shifting swiftly to alternative, renewable energy sources, it is a disgrace that practices like fracking continue. It is also scandalous that many governmental representatives including presidential hopeful Mitt Romney tout fracking, paying no mind to the perils behind it. This practice promise nothing more than to send our planet spiraling more quickly into ruin. This may sound dramatic but the situation is grave and the fear is that there’s no reversing the unthinkable damage that has already been done.

I hope to see a day in my time when we collectively smarten up and work towards a more sustainable way of life. Until then, I commend the filmmakers (like Josh Fox), journalists, environmentalists and laypersons that strive to spread the message that our way of life needs to change, and it needs to start mattering what the results of our actions are.

When this message finally catches on, processes like fracking will seem as barbaric as cannibalism and human sacrifice, and we will have overcome what will surely be remembered as a dark age in human existence.

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