By Ashley Hansen
It’s on everyone’s minds these days. Any American who has visited a gas pump recently understands what a serious financial burden it is to drive from A to B. As oil prices soar higher and higher, Americans scramble to find a cleaner, cheaper alternative fuel. Environmentalists support natural gas as an effective way to slow down the effects of global warming. This premature support for natural gas drilling as a way to wean our country off its foreign oil dependency is now transitioning into a dangerous situation for years to come.
Although natural gas may slow down climate change, the process to obtain the gas has environmental issues of its own. Hydraulic Fracturing (better known as Fracking) is done by injecting vast amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep into the Earth in order to fracture the rocks and release the gas. The potential damage to our environment from the release of these chemicals and mishandling of the waste is unknown to us today—but more serious than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had originally believed.
Fracking releases about 596 different chemicals that are known to cause cancer in men and women and glycol ethers that are known to cause testicular toxicity, malformations of the embryo, bone marrow depression, and hemolysis (destruction of the red blood cells). It takes approximately one to seven million gallons of water each time a well is drilled, and an additional one to seven million each time they go back and frack. Trillions of gallons of water have been contaminated and most often, this produced water is merely dumped in rivers and streams. And what has the government done to prevent this? The answer is nothing.
In 2004, the EPA investigated water contamination due to fracking and, according to the New York Times, concluded that fracturing may release hazardous chemicals into sources of drinking water but said there was no reason to study it further. The study determined that fracturing posed “little or no threat” because the water is sucked back up out of the ground and the hazardous chemicals would likely be diluted or biodegrade on their own. Homes around the country would beg to differ.
Pennsylvania experiences particularly high risk. With over 71,000 gas wells, the level of radioactivity in their water is hundreds or thousands of times the maximum allowed by federal standards of drinking water. However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydrofracking wells from being reclassified as injection wells, which would have pinned them under federal regulation. With no regulation, drilling companies merely haul off their waste to sewage companies, who then dump the water into the Monongahela and Delaware Rivers, which supply water to 800,000 and 1.5 million people, respectively, in Pennsylvania.
Although not as severe as Pennsylvania, here in California as of 2009, there were 1,643 producing gas wells. Numerous other states are producing natural gas as well. The lack of regulation and no standards testing for natural gas wells could potentially contaminate the water of millions of Americans and wildlife around the country.
Furthermore, fracking causes high levels of pollution. Although burning natural gas may be less of a pollutant than burning oil, the current process to obtain the gas may not. Numerous polluted-air days have been reported from one of the least likely places in America—the Upper Green River basin in southwest Wyoming. The closest metropolis, Salt Lake City, is 180 miles away; however, the economy in this part of the state thrives off of 1,200 gas wells located sometimes in walking distance from people’s homes. Although some members of this community have called upon the EPA to study the correlation between gas wells and air pollution, the EPA has removed the topic from those it is considering for a national study of hydrofracking.
The long-term effects of this unregulated industry are uncertain, but I will tell you one thing—they are scary. The lack of national attention the natural gas industry is getting is unsettling. Studies need to be done to fully comprehend the backlash our country might see from its hasty action to “drill baby, drill.”