Recently, the Montana Tech Petroleum Department, the Butte Patriots, which according to the Montana Tea Party website is the local Tea Party affiliate, and the Montana Petroleum Association sponsored a film titled FrackNation. The film’s purpose was to “uncover fracking facts suppressed by environmental activists.” Fracking is the process of creating fractures in rock to release oil or natural gas. It is currently a booming method of petroleum and natural gas extraction in Montana and North Dakota. Fracking has a sordid national track record.
In order to achieve full disclosure, I suppose I would be considered, by Tea Party standards, a “radical environmentalist.” I served many years on the board of the Montana Environmental Information Center, several years as president, and I served on the board of the Clark Fork Coalition. I have seen the FrackNation film and read the glowing praise in the current Legislature for fracking. There is a darker side to the story.
The current promotional hype aside, fracking is a major potential threat to public health, the environment and social justice.
It is estimated that over 80 percent of the fluids used in the fracking process are potentially harmful to human health. Because of faulty wells, leaking ponds and spills, humans can be exposed to these potentially hazardous chemicals. At least 30 percent of these fluids remain underground after fracking is completed. (NPRC) Fracking in the eastern U.S. has contaminated municipal drinking water supplies. “Catastrophic well-casing failures can happen at any time. The EPA is now investigating a 2011 blowout during fracking in a well near Killdeer, N.D., that pierced the aquifer the town relies on.” (National Geographic Magazine, March 2013) An EPA study in 2011 found fracking associated substances in aquifers in Wyoming. Geologically, fracking threatens aquifers. “The key in extracting the gas is to create open fissures in the rock formations for the gas to collect in. Ideally, the process isn’t supposed to create fissures between the gas reserves and the aquifers. Unfortunately, this does occur.” (Professor Tomasz Wiltowski, Southern Illionois University). In 2005, fracking was exempted from government regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. For example, in Dimcock, Pa., 13 private water wells were contaminated by fracking and one actually exploded. The General Accounting Office has found water contamination from fracking in Texas and Illinois.
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Other identified public health risks from fracking include: radioactive wastewater, radon, smog, livestock poisoning and endangering our food supply,
Fracking also contributes to air pollution (VOCs, methane) and the release of greenhouse gases.
Fracking uses and potentially contaminates vast amount of water and soil. A typical fracking process can use as much as eight million gallons of water which can become contaminated. (NPRC) A study by Cornell University has found that fracking is more harmful to the environment than using coal to produce energy. Fracking can lead to erosion.
Fracking also diverts attention from the need to develop renewable energy.
The boom and bust nature of fracking places tremendous pressure on local infrastructure. Both Texas and Pennsylvania have had to spend large sums of money to repair public roads damaged by trucks associated with fracking. Pressure is placed on public services, such as medical personnel and local police that are not paid for by the fracking companies. Property values tend to drop while rents skyrocket, displacing long-term residents. Local areas are faced with paying for the cleanup after the fracking activities have ceased. Professor Susan Christopherson of Cornell University states: “There are significant economic questions to consider including projected vs. actual job creation, the burdens on local infrastructure in drilling regions and the long-term economic prospects of communities. Typically, resource extraction industries go through boom/bust cycles and produce costs to communities that remain after the boom is over.”
Fracking is not the benign method of energy development that its supporters allege. While fracking can be an economic boon to oil and gas exploration and development companies, the costs to public health, the environment and the social structure of communities needs to give us pause. I would ask readers to do a little independent investigation to determine for themselves whether fracking is the nonthreatening energy panacea it is alleged to be by the petroleum industry.
— John W. Ray, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and public policy at Montana Tech. His views are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.
Dr. John W. Ray
915 West Galena St.
Butte, Montana 59701