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Fracking: What’s at Stake?

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By Joanna Pollock
TFW Contributing Writer

Fracking, a type of hydraulic fracturing, is actually a shortened term for the drilling extraction process known by the oil and gas industry as high-volume, slick-water, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing is an extraction process that was first developed by Halliburton in the 1940s, but the new method was developed in the late 1990s and is referred to as “slick-water hydraulic fracturing” because it uses different chemicals (which reduce friction) and much more water than the traditional hydraulic fracturing. Traditional hydraulic fracturing used 20,000 to 80,000 gallons of fluid and the new method (mostly water) uses 2 million to 8 million gallons. The newer process also entails thousands of feet of horizontal drilling after a preliminary vertical shaft has been made. The vertical shaft can be as much as a mile below ground level.

The fracking process uses intense pressure to “fracture,” or “frack” the shale bed releasing natural gas unattainable prior to this process. The pressure is created using large quantities of water, sand, gravel and chemicals, which releases the shale gas, predominantly methane. This new process allowed natural gas in shale deposits to be released and captured, which has brought large-scale natural gas extraction to many new regions of the country where these shale formations and gas exist. Referred to as “shale plays,” these geologic targets are being “fracked,” across the nation from Pennsylvania to Wyoming and South to Texas. The Arkansas shale play, called the Fayetteville Shale, is geographically comprised within the Arkoma Basin and covers over 14 Arkansas counties.

Prompted by the contamination of a residential well in Alabama, The EPA regulated hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act beginning in 1997 in an order by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The EPA began to study the potential threats to water from the process in 2000, extracting samples from coal seam formations to underground drinking water supplies could be contaminated. In the midst of the research, an energy task force formed in 2001 by Vice President Dick Cheney recommended that Congress exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

An independent report conducted by Earth Works — a nonprofit group dedicated to perpetuating responsible mining practices — explains that this exemption is now commonly referred to as the “Halliburton loophole” because it is believed to be the result of Cheney’s energy task force. Cheney was CEO of Halliburton  — a major manufacturer of fracking fluids  — and Halliburton staff were involved in the review of the EPA report released in 2004 after its study. The EPA report claimed that the process posed “little or no threat,” to drinking water.

Earth Works reported that in 2005 EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley revealed evidence that the original 2004 study was not handled properly. Furthermore, an EPA whistle-blower, Weston Wilson, recommended that a new peer reviewed panel be formed that is not as influenced by the regulated industry. Earth Works indicated that information showing that fracturing fluids are a threat to human health and may continue to be “long after drilling operations are completed,” were left out of the 2004 EPA report.

As was recommended by Cheney’s energy task force, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing processes from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, making the natural gas industry the only industry that does not have to comply with national standards to ensure the nation’s drinking water is safe. Since these exemptions, there has been a natural gas production boom in the United States of a magnitude difficult to overstate, which begs the question, if fracking is safe then why was the exemption necessary for industry growth?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration public records, shale production in the US grew at an annual rate of 17 percent from 2000 to 2006. After the exemptions of the 2005 energy bill, the annual growth rate soared to over 48 percent from 2006 to 2010. If fracking remains exempt from federal environmental and public health standards, the EIA projects that by 2035 shale gas production will have increased “fourfold,” a projected 30 percent increase from the production rates of 2009. The growth of the natural gas industry in Arkansas is making it difficult for state officials to monitor its practices. In addition to its rapid growth, the relatively new process of fracking paired with no federal standards, leaves state environmental protection agencies at a disadvantage.

Without standardized protection of the nation’s drinking water across state lines in regard to fracking, state agencies are left with the responsibility to ensure that hydraulic fracturing does not jeopardize public health.

April Lane of the Environmental Alliance at the University of Central Arkansas and the Citizens Advisory Group of Greenbrier states that “… given the novelty of the fracking process, which includes the addition of horizontal drilling and the massive amounts of fluid used to generate pressure, combined with the rate of increased production, there is clear evidence that states, including Arkansas, are simply not equipped to protect, especially our water, or our air and soil.”

Lane is originally from Van Buren County and has been visiting with numerous other landowners, royalty recipients, politicians and industry representatives for the past year and half. Arkansas water is her biggest concern.

Lane is a wife, mother and student at the University of Central Arkansas who reports “The current amount of water used [in fracking] is depleting our aquifers far beyond the rate of repletion. The companies damage the land and move on. The tax payers will end up paying for this. Property rights, water contamination, air quality, soil contamination, these are serious problems; but when you add them all together, we are accumulating risks to our environment and economy now and in the future. People need to make the connection with our legislators. We have to move past just jobs and money. The benefits are not outweighing the costs.”

The Arkansas Shale Caucus comprises a group of Arkansas legislators who represent the interest of the gas industry.

On the Facebook page “Arkansas General Assembly Shale Caucus,” the description of the group is “The Ark. Shale Caucus promotes the interests of the gas drilling industry in the Arkansas Legislature.” The general information section of the page reads “We all have issues that our constituents want addressed. Sometimes, however, people file bills with good intent that affect the lives and jobs of people not in their district. It’s become pretty clear the Fayetteville Shale Play has become a target for a lot of recent legislation …” The mission of the Arkansas Shale Caucus is stated as “To protect the interests and profitability of the natural gas drilling industry in Arkansas.”

Lane finds issue with the caucus. “Why do multimillion dollar industries have caucuses in our Arkansas legislature? They don’t need a caucus. They pay lobbyists … This caucus makes it hard for constituents of their districts to come forward with problems they are having from this industry. I’m from Van Buren County and the caucus doesn’t represent me. How about a clean water caucus?” says Lane.

The boom in the natural gas industry as erupted across the nation, and with it, reports of water contamination are prompting the EPA to take a second look at the safety of fracking. In December 2011, the EPA conducted a study in response to numerous complaints from residents of Pavillion, Wyo., who experienced groundwater and aquifer contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing.

The EPA detected high concentrations of “benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics …” as well as, hydrocarbons in ground water from monitoring water wells near the pits used for the disposal of drilling waste and produced water (water combined with chemicals used for lubrication and pressure in the drilling process).
The EPA also concluded through rigorous, scientific examination that “constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the Wind River drinking water aquifer at depths above the current production zone.”  The chemicals associated with fracking are currently unpublicized, which means the effects of chemical pollution from fracking are not completely understood at this point. (“Many of the chemicals … since they are protected as proprietary by the industry, but other which are known are toxic to human health.”)

A study released Sept. 4, 2010, titled “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective” states that as many as 944 chemicals are used in natural gas operations and most of these are undisclosed and protected as proprietary by the industry. Of the known chemicals, “… 75 percent of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40 percent to 50 percent could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37 percent could affect the endocrine system; and 25 percent could cause cancer and mutations.

“These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed.” The report further indicates that the chemicals in the process known to be endocrine disrupters in humans can elicit these effects in very small concentrations. But water is not the only concern. This same report reveals that these chemicals and the fracking process are also a source of soil and air pollution, and Arkansans are virtually powerless to stop the natural gas industry from drilling on their land.

“There are some major property rights considerations with the way the laws are set up in Arkansas,” says Jeff Pistole, President of the citizen group United for Responsible Gas Extraction of Arkansas. “In Arkansas, people can own their land without owning their mineral rights,” says Pistole, “so the land can be leased for drilling leaving the owner of the land [or surface rights] with no recourse when drilling starts on their property.”

Furthermore, gas companies only need 51 percent of the acreage within their unit (which is one square mile of land) before they can receive Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission’s approval to develop the property, regardless of the will of the owners of the remaining property. “This is a legal process known as forced integration or pooling,” says Pistole.
April Lane states, “The forced integration law broke the camel’s back. The average landowner may or may not own their mineral rights, but if they are force pooled, they have no choice and they have to watch as the land they love and they thought they owned is ripped apart. I know people who have had brooks on their property for generations that are now dry because the water was taken by the industry. Clear creeks are now polluted and their own fences have been torn down. With forced pooling or integration there is nothing they can do.”

A cursory review of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality website reveals some thought-provoking ratios. There are a total of 22 inspectors with more than 4,000 fracking drill beds in the state; and, according to a report from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel of September 2011 compiled by Debbie Doss, there are 14,000 projected to be drilled. Some of the counties with the heaviest drilling activity, such as, Cleburn and Clinton, have no inspectors.

“ADEQ is understaffed and underfunded and lacks the laws needed to adequately protect our water, air and soil from fracking. This is really not controversial,” says Lane.
The Arkansas Public Policy report indicated that 54 percent of gas facilities were in violation of Arkansas’ basic, environmental laws between 2006 and 2010 even without the laws requiring the industry to adhere to best management practice. There are currently no laws in Arkansas that require the industry to use best management practices. Several bills, that would have required the industry to follow these practices failed to pass into law during the 2011 legislative session, under intense lobbying pressure from the industry.

“Last March we were outnumbered roughly five to one,” says Tom Kimmons, member of the Van Buren County Gas Advisory Board, “The gas industry gave their employees time off and sent them to our capitol and many of them weren’t even from Arkansas … Very few of them knew anything about bills or the bonding issue.”

Speaking of the economic outcomes to Arkansas from the natural gas boom, Kimmons states “There is no doubt this has had a positive economic impact in terms of creating jobs, the question is what is the payoff. Do we still want to drink clean water and have clean air. A job is a job, but what price are we paying for it?”

Some reports suggest that, without best management practices in place, the natural gas industry could damage other areas of the Arkansas economy in the long run.

A report issued by the Sam M. Walton College on behalf of the Arkansas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners or AIPRO, reported that the market value of Arkansas natural gas production in 2008 was almost $3.6 billion, but according to this same report, the natural gas boom does not exceed the contribution to the Arkansas economy from the Arkansas agricultural commodities of broilers, rice and soybeans, which are valued at a total of $5.2 billion.

Greg Seaton of Trout Unlimited states, “The Arkansas economy is not just natural gas. The economy is also tourism, agriculture and property value. Without requiring the gas industry to use best management practices, we are putting our economy and quality of life in Arkansas at stake.”

“Potable water for crop irrigation and drinking are permanently removed in large quantities from the water table due to contamination,” says Seaton. Pistole, of United for Responsible Gas Extraction, states “Without the regulatory protection citizens need, the only recourse we have is litigation against these abuse. That’s why baseline water and well testing is so important. Even if there have never been any problems, if you don’t have that baseline testing of the water, then the industry just says there is not proof their practices caused the problems.”

Without regulations or laws in place to demand baseline testing and other measures of accountability, the natural gas industry will continue as scheduled.

Author’s Note: “Citizens who would like to stay informed of bills being considered by the Arkansas legislature can visit the Arkansas General Assembly Web page at www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly. This is not a policy year for the assembly, but it is an election year, so ask the candidates where they stand on laws that would require best management practices for the fracking process. 2013 will be a policy year for the assembly so there will be another opportunity for the best management bills to pass into law. Writing letters, calling and emailing your legislators to let them know how you stand on these and other issues does make a difference.

You can also write letters to the editor of newspapers and visit your legislators at their local offices and at the capitol in Little Rock. Additionally, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel’s mission is to be “a statewide organization dedicated to achieving social and economic justice by organizing citizen groups around the state, educating and supporting them to be more effective and powerful, and linking them with one another in coalitions and networks. The Panel seeks to bring balance to the public policy process in Arkansas.”
All citizens are encouraged to contact the APPP for information or to get involved; APPP website: http://arpanel.org/content/.

Special thanks to Joyce Hale and the League of Women Voters for assisting with resources and technical direction on this article.

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