Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Fatal Fracking Frenzy

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Fatal Fracking Frenzy

By Patricia M. DeMarco

January 4, 2018

 

“The road we have long been traveling on is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress at great speed, but at its end lies disaster.”  Rachel Carson.[1]

 

Conceived of greed, promoted with pride, and nourished with worker’s blood, sweat and tears, the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for fossil gas reserves has whipped the energy industry into a frenzy. Its backers point with great satisfaction at the results accomplished by eliminating “burdensome regulations.”  This industry could only proceed when the National Energy Act of 2005 opened the “Haliburton Loophole,” granting exemptions for hydraulic fracturing natural gas extraction from seven federal environmental and worker protection laws.(https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41760.pdf)  Without these exemptions, fracking would be illegal! Now 39 states have some degree of fracking operations producing natural gas at the pace of 80 billion cubic feet per day, 67% from fracking from 300,000 wells.[2]

 

Relatively cheap natural gas is piped across the country mostly for domestic use in homes and displacing coal for utility electricity production.  But the industry targets massive exports in the near future as the infrastructure for transport and shipment to China and other growing markets is complete.[3] When that happens, the domestic prices will go up, and the communities that currently justify the fracking side effects with the need for local use and local jobs will be left with the environmental degradation in water use, land devaluation, and air emissions[4] but the larger profits will accrue to the multinational companies that sell the gas internationally.

 

Fracking also produces hydrocarbon liquids that can be used as precursors for plastics and other petrochemical products.  This is the payload for the industry.  The collection system and infrastructure of new refineries , “ethane cracker” plants, is shifting the locus of the petrochemical industry toward Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West Virginia, the heart of the Marcellus and Utica shale gas deposits.[5] The pace of this industry initiative has hastened following the devastating storm damage that lay siege to the Houston and Louisiana coastal installations.  As the industry knows in its strategies, continued sea level rise and the increased storm severity from global warming compromise the viability of these operations long term.  While continuing to deny and obfuscate the reality of climate change, the petrochemical industry prepares to migrate into areas interior from the coasts.

 

Companies like the Edgar Thomson Works of U. S. Steel see fracking as a way to secure a dedicated gas supply in the face of likely price increases and restrictions.[6] A community such as Braddock, left devastated by the loss of industries, looks hopefully to this new avenue for employment and economic development.  But, the hidden costs loom unrecognized, lurking to bring on lower birth weights in babies, higher incidents of asthma, water contamination, and increased pollution from diesel trucks and spills.[7] Without strict controls and oversight, the short- term promise of jobs, both those preserved in the existing Edgar Thomson operations and those emergent in the new fracking industry, comes at the price of a community locked into a sacrifice zone.[8]

 

Ultimately, the fracking frenzy unleashed by Dick Chaney and his colleagues through the Haliburton Loophole accelerates the fatal outcome of our fossil dependence. Investments in the infrastructure of the fossil gas extraction and enhanced oil recovery and “clean coal” technologies divert resources from implementing renewable energy systems on a large scale nationwide.  Every new data point indicates greater levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, greater acidification of the oceans and greater contamination from petrochemical products- plastics – worldwide.[9]  Rather than curtailing these destructive initiatives, we plunge forward heedless of the signals of danger ahead, danger already upon us, and catastrophe for humanity as a certain end.

 

The proposed fracking operation at the Edgar Thomson Steel Works is the exact cutting edge of the transition. The 600 workers in the Edgar Thomson mill one of the last steel mills operating from the heyday of Pittsburgh Industry, see cheap gas as a lifeline to preserving their jobs. The company argues that gas is cleaner than coal and provides revenue from potential sale of produced liquids that can become feedstock for the plastics petrochemical industry. Mayor Fetterman is looking at the immediate tax revenues and retention of jobs for 600 working families, and minimizes the risks that he bets will play out long range, if at all.[10]

 

There is a three-layered ethical conundrum surrounding fracking.

  1. The hydraulic fracturing industry only exists because the Halliburton Loophole in the National Energy Act of 2005 gave exemptions from seven federal environmental protection and worker safety standards. It may be legal, but it is wrong to suspend environmental and worker protections to promote the profitable extraction of a fossil resource for the economic benefit of corporations. Using petrochemical liquids from fracking to add to the single-use plastic burden of the Earth is another highly unethical consequence of this industry.

 

  1. Environmental justice issues arise from exposures to people who live in proximity to pollution sources such as steel mills fracking operations, coal fired power plants and petrochemical facilities. The areas around such sources are considered “sacrifice zones” where people cannot afford to leave and are subject to pollution for generations. (See the lengthy literature on Baton Rouge cancer alley, for example)

 

  1. Inter -generational justice issues arise as the fracking process extends the use of fossil fuels and infrastructure for its extraction, processing and use for another thirty years. Global warming from increasing greenhouse gas emissions is an existential threat to all life on Earth as we know it. This is a step in the wrong direction.

 

Finally, policies for a just transition for heavy industry need to be developed. As the whole industrial supply chain moves to a more circular system based on sustainable practices for resource management, the fate of existing workers and the human and social needs in the transition must receive focused attention. Economics alone in a market heavily skewed by embedded fossil industry subsidies will not drive a just and equitable transition to a sustainable future. People demanding accountability for policies that suspend the rules to the advantage of certain industries at the expense of public health and worker well-being can make a difference in the outcome.  Communities demanding full disclosure and hearings before permits are issued can make a difference in seeing that environmental and health standards are preserved. Community meetings to placate “unduly concerned” citizens after deals are struck in the back room have no place in a true representative democracy.

 

If our elected officials do not stand for the health and well-being of the community, we who care must stand up and be heard.  The Allegheny County Health Department must be petitioned to enforce air emission standards of existing sources, without exception. If the government no longer protects the people, we must protect ourselves.

~~~~

 

 

References and Resources

[1] Rachel L. Carson. Silent Spring. 1962. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston.  p.277

[2]  Energy Information Administration. Energy Today “Hydraulically fractured wells provide two-thirds of U.S. natural gas production” May 5, 2016. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=26112  Accessed January 3, 2018.

[3] Shelly Goldberg. “Natural gas exports can solve U.S. energy glut.” Bloomberg Business News. May 2017.   https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-05-05/natural-gas-exports-can-solve-u-s-energy-glut Accessed January 3, 2018.  See EIA article on planned pipelines here https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=28872

[4] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States (Final Report) December 2016. EPA-600-R-16-236ES. December 2016. https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/hfstudy/recordisplay.cfm?deid=332990  Accessed January 3, 2018.

[5] Patricia M. DeMarco. “Wrong Way- A Call for A New American Dream.” Blog post January 8, 2017. On subject of plastics pollution and production from fracking.  See citations and references for primary resources. https://patriciademarco.com/2017/01/08/wrong-way-a-call-for-a-new-american-dream/

[6] Don Hopey. “Company planning to drill for gas at Edgar Thomson mill.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 27, 2017.     http://www.post-gazette.com/powersource/companies/2017/12/27/Merrion-Oil-Gas-planning-drill-gas-US-Steels-Edgar-Thomson-mill-Braddock-Pittsburgh/stories/201712270142

[7] Patricia DeMarco. “Fracking Health Effects and Worker Safety.” Battle of Homestead Foundation presentation. August 25, 2016. (See citations for primary sources.)  https://patriciademarco.com/fracking-health-effects-worker-safety

[8] Reid Frazier. “U.S.Steel agrees to allow fracking at Edgar Thomson Mill.” NPR State Impact. December 27, 2017.   https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2017/12/27/us-steel-agrees-to-allow-fracking-at-steel-mill/ Accessed January 2, 2018.

[9] National Climate Assessment. http://www.noaa.gov/media-release/arctic-saw-2nd-warmest-year-smallest-winter-sea-ice-coverage-on-record-in-2017Nature. http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/overview/overview#intro-section-2

[10] Don Hopey. “Company planning to drill for gas at Edgar Thomson mill.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 27, 2017.     http://www.post-gazette.com/powersource/companies/2017/12/27/Merrion-Oil-Gas-planning-drill-gas-US-Steels-Edgar-Thomson-mill-Braddock-Pittsburgh/stories/201712270142

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