The effects of fracking -- a realistic look

            In a recent column, James Murr sounded the alarm about the potential for renewed oil production within the city of Santa Maria. He referenced a Times article about Area 9 being considered for oil development and cited an article in another publication that reported on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” contaminating aquifers and triggering earthquakes.

            Murr has good reason to be concerned.

            In a letter to the editor, another writer said Murr need not worry because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (by 2009) had not documented any cases of groundwater contamination related to fracking; there are ample regulations in place to protect our environment from the impacts of oil and gas production; and the Monterey shale underlying the Santa Maria Valley is already naturally fractured.

The debate will continue. We should get all available information and decide for ourselves whether to be alarmed or reassured. One way to get more information is to watch Gasland Part II, produced and directed by Josh Fox. Fox traveled to many communities where gas and oil wells are being fracked and has documented the impacts, many of which are possible with other forms of oil and gas extraction.

            Gasland Part II premiered on HBO on July 8.  I saw a pre-screening of the documentary a few weeks ago. I urge you to see it. 

            Here are some of the findings presented in Gasland Part II:

            Fracking threatens water supplies in several ways. Oil and gas wells are lined with cement to protect the environment; the trouble is cement cracks (look at your sidewalks and driveways).  About five percent of wells leak immediately and about 60 percent have failures within 30 years.  Not every crack or leak results in disaster, but every failure presents the potential for contamination of water and release of methane and other gases into the atmosphere.

            The original Gasland made flammable water from the kitchen sink famous.  Gasland Part II has many more examples of this and explains the phenomenon. Leaks in gas wells can allow methane from deep underground to migrate into water wells. Fox documents how contaminated water in numerous locations has driven people from their homes, ruined property values and devastated communities.

            Many of the fracking chemicals, which are mixed with water and sand and pumped under high pressure deep into the earth, are unknown to us. It is well documented, however, that many of these chemicals are cancer-causing. (Fracking proponents say you can find these chemicals under your kitchen sink. Perhaps, but I’d rather not find them in my drinking water.) Moreover, many of the fracking chemicals are unknown to us because the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

            Fracking contributes to global climate change. Much has been made of recent reductions of greenhouse gas emissions because of a shift from coal to natural gas, which produces about half as much carbon dioxide (the most common greenhouse gas) as coal. However, as natural gas is extracted, methane leaks into the air, and methane is up to 105 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

            Fracking also creates local pollution. It requires huge amounts of truck travel for hauling water, chemicals and wastewater. The exhaust from the trucks combines with that of generators and condensate tanks to pollute the air.

            See Gasland Part II for yourself to see how several communities have been devastated by fracking and consider that many of these impacts are also possible under other forms of oil and gas extraction. Let your elected officials know how you feel.

Published July 12, 2013 in the Santa Maria Times. Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs in the Santa Maria Times every Friday, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.