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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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Editor's note: You can take action to ban fracking on federal lands here.

As a Forest Supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s, I put a 15-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. I made this controversial decision because the ecosystems on the Front are irreplaceably rich and diverse, and because I’d witnessed first-hand the cultural connections (in spirit, mind, and body) that countless people both near and far had to this extraordinary place. The towering limestone cliffs, the wealth of wildlife, and the sheer wildness resonate deeply with the human psyche, and have done so for countless generations for over ten thousand years.  

I thought I’d seen the worst of the oil and gas industry during that battle: its death-grip on public agencies, its demand for ever more leases, and its running roughshod over drilling regulations with impunity. But some years later I learned about an insidious new threat from the fossil fuel industry—hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In fracking, fluid is injected into underground shale formations to break them apart and release trapped natural gas (and increasingly, oil). Unfortunately, fracking fluid contaminates our water, fracked gas escapes into the atmosphere, and the breakneck pace of drilling for these low-quality wells wreak havoc on wildlife habitat and human communities alike.

In the early 2000s, fracking was mostly confined to the Southwest and seemed little more than a crazy, expensive, last-ditch effort to squeeze the last bits of gas out of old fields. But as the easy-to-get fossil fuels have been depleted, and as government subsidies for fossil fuels have increased, such last-ditch efforts have become the industry standard. Today, the battle I fought over the Rocky Mountain Front seems small in comparison to what the fossil fuel industry aims to do across the entire country with fracking, including on public lands.

(Click below to view a slideshow about fracking's impacts from Post Carbon Institute's Energy Reality campaign.)

 

Public lands, private profit

In recent years, fracking has spread from the rugged and remote public lands in the American West to the well-populated, bucolic landscapes of Pennsylvania. After decades of the oil and gas industry quietly cracking apart the crust of the earth (well, “quietly” if you aren’t in the vicinity) people are finally sitting up and taking notice. Communities across the US are attempting to ban fracking to protect their citizens, and so far over 250 have succeeded. Vermont has a ban, and Maryland and New York have moratoriums in place. The fight is far from over: Pennsylvania, for example, has passed a draconian piece of legislation[1] that strips communities of the ability to regulate, where, when and how fracking should occur.

But local and state-level lawmaking, while important, addresses only part of the picture. A significant amount of fracked wells are currently drilled on federal lands—that is, publicland, our national commons. Ostensibly we’re the owners, and federal and state land management agencies are supposed to listen to us and to speak for citizens unborn, the future owners.

Groundwater chemical injections are indeed regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act…but in 2005 Congress exempted fracking fluids from that law. Fracking is also exempt from the Clean Air Act. And the Clean Water Act. If it’s so safe, why does it need to be exempt from some of the most important laws protecting our health and our collective commons? Even new regulations promulgated in May 2013 are watered down[2] and do little to curb or cure the myriad problems associated with fracking. 

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.

What’s at stake?

Our public lands are reservoirs for biological diversity and ecosystem services, but they’re also places to go be human: to connect with nature, recreate, and enjoy its beauty, meaning and solitude. These are all priceless attributes and irreplaceable by any human measures.

Ecosystem services are those things and processes that nature provides basically for free and without need of human intervention: filtering water; circulating carbon; providing food, fiber, shelter, and genetic diversity; producing soil, oxygen and biomass; cycling nutrients and waterJust to name a few.  Note that without most of these things we’d be dead, or at least very, very unhappy. 

Yet these are the very goods, services, and experiences that are being trashed, sold off, compromised, and fracked to death. The fossil fuel industry brags about how much gas and oil they “produce,” but of course it’s nature that produced the gas, and they are depleting it. No one, ever, will get that fossil fuel, the embodiment of ancient sunlight, back to use it again. 

Public lands belong to us all.  It’s up to us to demand that they be kept in the best condition possible, their productivity, function, and splendor unspoiled. An irretrievable depletion of a limited resource is neither sustainable nor acceptable. So let’s not accept it.

The Obama Administration recently proposed new rules for oil and gas fracking on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The BLM's proposed rules are weak, at best, and pave the way for corporate profits at the expense of our American treasures and essential resources. The BLM is seeking public comments on the proposed rules. Tell them: Don't frack public lands! The deadline for comments is August 23rd. You can sign the petition and submit public comments here.

Back to the Front

The 15-year moratorium I imposed on fossil fuel leasing in the Rocky Mountain Front expired last year. But in the meantime, the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front has formed, and we have been very busy working to ensure the Front’s sustainability. We stopped a drilling proposal in mid-study. We did economic studies showing the Front was worth far more intact and undeveloped than being peppered with gas wells. We bought out existing leases.

And most of all, we convinced our Senators to make the moratorium permanent. Our Coalition, under local volunteer leadership, collaborated for four years to craft a piece of legislation that will keep the Front just like it is for the next couple of centuries – it’s working its way through Congress now.  The people led and the leaders followed.

Those unfortunate people who are within a few miles of the fracking tremors are doing more than taking notice, they’re taking action. With our health, our water, our land and our future at stake, action now is a very good idea.   It’s time to take back our land and ban fracking on public lands[9]!   


[2]http://www.earthworksaction.org/earthblog/detail/blm_weakens_proposed_rule_for_hydraulic_fracturing#.UfsUl205syZ  BLM Weakens Proposed Rule for Hydraulic Fracturing, Aaron Mintze, Earthworks. 

[3] [http://player.vimeo.com/video/48000777 The Fracking of Rachael Carson by Sandra Steingraber Orion Magazine September/October 2012 ]  

[6] [http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/21/us-eog-sand-idUSTRE78K54S20110921 Sand Mining Emerges as Another Fracking Threat, September 2011.]

[7] [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2361876/Fracking-lead-earthquake-domino-effect-weakens-fault-lines-deep-earths-crust-scientists-claim.html Fracking could lead to an 'earthquake domino effect' as it weakens fault lines deep in the earth's crust, scientists claim.  Daily Mail.  July2013.]

[8] The industry-friendly state of Wyoming is taking over a groundbreaking U.S. EPA investigation into the possible contamination of Pavillion, WY area groundwater by fracking. See more at: http://www.earthworksaction.org/#sthash.RF4wi1VL.dpuf

 

Gloria Flora is founder and Director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, an organization dedicated to the sustainability of public lands and of the plants, animals and communities that depend on them. In her 22-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, Gloria became nationally known for her leadership in ecosystem management and for her courageous principled stands: as supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in north-central Montana, she made a landmark decision to prohibit natural gas leasing along the 356,000-acre Rocky Mountain Front. You can read her recent essay, "Backing the Front," about fighting oil and gas development in the Rocky Mountain Front published in the new book Energy Reality.

 
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