Fracking: an Environmental Nightmare

By Orpheus Reed | March 24, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Protesters in Spain march against fracking, October 2013. Photo: Pilar Chacón Jiménez, Flickr Creative Commons

All over our Earth natural systems are being degraded, poisoned, and in some cases damaged beyond repair. The climate is being transformed with devastating consequences. Many living ecosystems are being taken to the precipice of collapse. Some scientists say we are on the edge of the sixth mass extinction of species in Earth’s 4-billion-year history. Previous mass extinctions have been caused by planet-wide natural phenomena—asteroid strikes, natural climate change, and other factors. The one we are facing now is caused by human activity. The main driver of this new mass extinction is the workings of the system of capitalism—a system that has shown itself to be entirely incapable of protecting and preserving the natural world, and humanity.

In this extremely dangerous situation, the workings of this system have brought on yet another environmental nightmare—hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is a technique that makes it possible for the first time to drill out gas and oil deposits buried deep in layers of shale rock.

Fracking was invented in the U.S. and so far it has mainly been applied here. From its start just in the last decade, fracking has spread like a cancer—churning up ecosystems, poisoning land, water, and people across the U.S.

Fracking for shale oil and shale gas has brought an explosion in energy extraction in the U.S., allowing the U.S. to now lead the world in oil and gas production. Natural gas production in the U.S. has increased about 30 percent since 2005 (USA Today, June 24, 2013) and 39 percent of U.S. natural gas production is now shale gas. Fracking is now going on in at least 17 states with about 82,000 wells operating nationally. The largest number of fracking wells are in Texas and Colorado, but are also widespread in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Continuous and relentless efforts are underway to open up whole new areas to be fracked all over the U.S. And now, U.S. energy companies are hungrily eyeing vast new deposits of shale oil and gas from one side of the world to the other.

The U.S. is wielding this new-found domination of these energy reserves, and the technology and know-how to exploit them, like a heavy club in the competition and rivalry for control of the world economy. Increasingly, the U.S. has used fracking and its increasing domination over world energy supplies, production, and technology as a weapon of strategic power and control, expanding its imperialist bullying of other countries.

How Does Fracking Work and What Is the Danger?

Diagram of fracking
Photo: flickr Creative Commons/

In fracking, wells are drilled vertically down to layers of shale, then horizontally into the layer. Some of these horizontal wells stretch as far as two miles. Millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are then pumped through the well into the rock layer at high pressure to crack apart the layers of shale rock. The sand pumped down lodges in the rock fissures that are cracked open, and aided by the chemicals in the fracking solution, gas and oil can flow up the well through these fissures in the rock to be collected.

The well bores are cased with cement, supposedly preventing leakage of methane gas and chemicals as well as dangerous naturally occurring materials like arsenic from getting into groundwater. But these casings have been shown to fail, leading to methane poisoning of water systems all over the U.S. Many fracking wells have been drilled in areas where people live, even near schoolyards and in people’s backyards and farms.

Fracking is an environmental nightmare. It means whole new floods of unconventional fossil fuels are being drilled out, burned, and leaked into the atmosphere, making the climate change emergency even more dire. It means the vast expansion of industrialization eating up wildlife habitat, spreading pollution of air and water, poisoning water supplies, threatening people’s health, and using up water in areas where it is already in shortage.

The Environmental Dangers from Fracking Are Manifold

Methane gas leaks into groundwater. People who live near fracking operations in various parts of the country have repeatedly filmed themselves lighting on fire what comes out of their water faucets because of the natural gas escaping into the water. Throughout the fracking process, methane gas leaks and is vented into the atmosphere. This worsens global warming, since methane gas has been shown to be 86 times more powerful at causing warming over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The chemicals pumped into the ground in fracking operations contain many toxic chemicals. In many cases the frackers won’t even divulge what chemicals they use. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, scientists have said that as much as one-quarter of fracking chemicals could be cancer-causing. The water, chemicals, and sand pumped into the wells are drawn back out as “flowback” water. This water can be very chemically toxic, and often contains radioactive radium and other radioactive elements. According to a 2011 New York Times investigation of reports the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has essentially suppressed, between 2008 and 2010, wells in Pennsylvania produced more than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater that was sent to treatment plants that did not have the capacity to remove the radiation or other toxic materials commonly in wastewater. After this bogus treatment, the contaminated water was dumped into rivers that provide drinking water for almost seven million people. Some wastewater is stored at fracking sites in ponds that have the potential to expose people in the vicinity to these dangerous substances. According to the advocacy group “Environment America,” U.S. fracking operations produced approximately 280 billion gallons of wastewater in 2012. This would be enough to flood all of Washington, DC, in a “22-foot deep toxic lagoon.”

The environmental horrors involved in fracking are almost too numerous to count. Fracking can release dangerous hydrocarbons from petroleum, including benzene and xylene, which have been found present in people living near fracking sites who have been sickened. Fracking operations usually involve constant traffic from large trucks spewing out gas and diesel fumes and ruining people’s peace of mind. Spills arising from fracking processes are widespread. According to a report from the independent news organization Pro Publica, in North Dakota the fracking boom has resulted in thousands of accidental releases of oil, wastewater, and other fluids. Here we are only touching on some of the dangers. Unfortunately, there are others, including the explosion and spills of very flammable shale oil that have occurred after a number of train derailments.

The Cover-up and the Reality

Faced with multiple sources of damaging effects to the environment and people’s health and lives, the U.S. government, from Obama on down, and the U.S. capitalist energy companies have repeatedly argued that fracking is safe, if done correctly and under the proper “regulation.” Obama has repeatedly trumpeted the natural gas boom for the U.S., claiming it is responsible for making great gains in lowering U.S. carbon emissions and calling it “the bridge to the future.” None of the dangers of fracking are being exposed and addressed in any real way by the government. Instead, the danger is being covered up and suppressed. Despite repeated congressional testimony from countless victims of fracking, essentially nothing is being done.

The truth of the matter is that very little is being done to study the problem on anything like the required scale. Studies by Duke University researchers on the leaking of methane into water near fracking sites in Dimock, Pennsylvania, and another location in Pennsylvania show methane and other dangerous chemicals to be present in water near gas drilling sites. Although these studies can’t definitively prove these leaks into groundwater were caused by fracking, they do make a link between fracking and the presence of these materials.

In case after case, the EPA, after starting an investigation, has backed off or downplayed the dangers of fracking. It was recently revealed that EPA studies of the escape of methane from fracking operations underestimated the leaks by half. This complete underestimation has allowed the EPA and the Obama administration to claim that by switching from coal to gas-powered power plants, the U.S. has made a big advance in combatting climate change. Meanwhile, the U.S. has vastly increased its export of coal—a 50 percent increase in 2012.

While the horrors of fracking are systematically left unstudied and covered over, the reality of fracking’s widespread poisoning of people is being exposed by hundreds of people all over the country. There is a growing movement against fracking, with anti-fracking groups forming and testimony bursting forth from all corners. Two powerful movies by director Josh Fox, Gasland (which was nominated in 2011 for an Oscar for best documentary feature film) and Gasland 2, have exposed to millions the dangers of fracking and the costs to people’s lives. (

The health problems that people in proximity to fracking sites document are many: headaches, nausea, skin rashes, fatigue, dizziness, anemia, breathing problems, chemical damage to their immune systems, neurological problems, brain fogginess, ulcers on skin and internal organs, and cancer.

There are countless stories and testimony of people who live in fracked areas who have suffered health problems. One such example is the story of Jacki Schilke, a rancher in North Dakota who lives within three miles of 32 oil and gas wells. In a YouTube video documenting people’s stories, Schilke shows how a creek on her land with formerly pristine water is now unfrozen even at subzero temperatures and constantly bubbles (likely with methane gas). Schilke is sick from hydrocarbon exposure. She can’t breathe and gets dizzy whenever she goes outside her house. Her animals are dying—something reported repeatedly by people in fracking country. She became sick a few days after the first wells were fracked. Fracking companies come in to small towns and rural areas and offer people money to let them drill. Schilke says, “They’re goddamn liars. They’re here to rape this land, make as much money as they can and get the hell out of here. They could give a crap less what they’re doing here. They will come on your property, look you straight in the eye and lie to you...they do not care.”

All this is protected and justified by the workings of the system of capitalism, a system that does not authorize many needed studies of the real dangers, covers up and downplays the results of studies that are done, and refuses to act on the testimony of thousands of those who have suffered ruined health and lives. This is a system that lies about and cannot be moved by the horrible destruction this practice has brought to the natural world. This is a system where all this is covered up and justified because it goes against the great strategic advantage, in profitability and strategic control, that fracking brings to the U.S. capitalist economy.

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