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Fracking the Commons: Why Your Public Lands Are Under Assault by Oil and Gas Drilling

A significant amount of fracked wells are currently drilled on federal lands—that is, public land, our national commons.

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You wouldn’t pour unknown chemicals in your backyard, dump toxic wastewater into your community’s water supply, or tear up the forests and fields around town; and you’d sue the hell out of any neighbor who tried the same. And yet we allow—we subsidize— these practices on our public lands. Our leaders aren’t protecting us and our commons from this tragedy, so it’s fallen to us—the public—to stop the juggernaut of the fossil fuel industry.

A fracking mess

Besides knitting countless roads and pipelines into the earth, and leveling broad drill pads in regimented patterns across the land, the realities of fracking strike at the heart of our shared lands.

The fracking recipe calls for high-pressure injections of a witches’ brew of chemicals, sand, and water to fracture deep layers of shale and let loose a bit more gas. An average of 4 to 5 million gallons of water is pumped into each well, And some of that slurry is regurgitated by the earth with new additions: brine and radioactivity. [3] This flowback is alternately emptied on the ground, dumped into abandoned wells or forcibly re-injected into permeable rock. 

The chemicals in fracking fluids have been deemed trade secrets and are thereby protected from exposure. The industry says they’re safe—but have they been tested? Who knows, they’re secret!  Can they make people sick?  There are many people living near fracked wells who started suffering a long list of maladies when the drilling and fracking started: nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness, nausea, even cancer. But conveniently, the fracking chemicals can’t be tracked—because they’re secret!—and so the industry can claim that they do no harm.   

Fracking creates new pathways for gas to travel out of the shale formations where it’s been trapped. The intent is to capture the gas, of course, and the industry regularly assures us that those pathways direct gas only towards the drill hole—never away from (fracking apparently causes natural gas deposits to defy physics) it and towards, say, nearby groundwater, or into the air to where it becomes 25-105 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide (depending upon whether you use a 20 or 100 year time frame) [4]. Fracking activities also release a slew [5] of pernicious gaseous compounds, particulates, and greenhouse gases, such as sulfuric oxide, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), benzene, toluene, diesel fuel, and hydrogen sulfide—all of which can have serious health implications.

Fracking’s tentacles reach far beyond the well pad, too. Fracking requires a specific silica sand to prop open rock pores, [6] and an average well uses about 7 million pounds of sand—worth an estimated $175,000 to the mining company extracting it. (Talk about motivation to dig, baby, dig!) The communities near these silica sand mines are watching their forests and rolling hills get flattened and their air go hazy with silica dust, particulates that can permanently damage lungs. The sand is mined on private and public lands, causing erosion and damn-near-impossible-to-restore mine sites. An estimated 6.5 million metric tons of sand were used for fracking in 2009—a quadrupling since 2000—and that amount doubled just in 2010.    

As if all that weren’t enough, more and more studies indicate that the injection of spent fracking fluids into wells and rock strata near fault lines is associated with earthquake swarms in unusually high numbers. These injection wells tend to become hypersensitive to distant natural quakes, triggering more earthquakes. [7] Meanwhile, as fracking studies proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency mysteriously stop before completion or remain unpublished, [8] the anecdotal evidence mounts of fracking’s true costs.

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