By LETTIE STRATTON and SAMANTHA FOSTER
Governor Cuomo will decide in December whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing in the state of New York.
Often referred to as “fracking,” hydraulic fracturing is the process of extracting natural gas from underground rock formations to be used as an energy source. According to long-time Environmental Action Organization (EAO) member Mia Sloan ’12, “The gas is released by drilling a well vertically and then horizontally, up to 8,000 feet deep. A mixture of chemicals, water, and sand is then injected into the ground at enormous pressures that crack the rocks, allowing gas to escape and flow out of the wells,” Sloan continued.
Communities in the Marcellus Shale region, a rock formation rich with natural gas that stretches from western Virginia to southern New York, have been thrust into a debate that often pits neighbors against each other.
“If done properly and safely, fracking is something that will enable us to tap into large natural gas reserves in America,” said Collin Henderson ’12, who has visited drilling sites as a result of his father’s employment in the natural gas industry. “The speculation is that the energy found in the Marcellus Shale could power our nation for 100 years. Natural gas offers something that can be used right now, which I think is the most important thing to consider.”
Opponents of fracking cite environmental concerns such as the impact on local water resources due to the high volume of water needed for drilling. An average of five million gallons of water is necessary for each well, according to www.hydraulicfracturing.com, and many septic systems are not prepared to handle the contaminated water once recovered from the wells. Another concern is the impact that heavy equipment and supplies, sometimes over 1,000 truckloads, on rural roads and streams, according to Sloan.
Although the North Country isn’t directly affected by drilling, Sloan said we will still feel the effects of the fracking process. “The industry has started trucking left-over frack water from Pennsylvania sites all the way up to Watertown to be processed. Chemicals are in such high concentrations in the water that the treatment plants aren’t designed to deal with them. That water then ends up in the Black River,” Sloan said. She continued to mention concerns over the amount of gas used in the countless trips back and forth from Pennsylvania to Watertown.
“People are worried about roads suffering when the transportation trucks pass over them,” Henderson said, adding that natural gas companies are required by the Department of Transportation to fix the damages that occur.
“Strict regulations must be in place for fracking in order to do it safely and without impact,” SLU Geology department chair Jeffrey Chiarenzelli said. Perhaps most important to the SLU community, he pointed out that fracking does not seriously impact the St. Lawrence Valley, as the valley does not have the geologic foundation for shale gas.
Chiarenzelli said that “more money should be invested in alternative energy sources.”
“I feel that if fracking continues to spread, everyone will be affected in some way. Even if we aren’t all from New York, we all go to school here,” said Brown.
The Effect of Fracking on Jobs
Henderson said, “Fracking provides the opportunity to create tons of jobs. Upon building a natural gas site in Pennsylvania, over 200,000 jobs in the area were created,” he said.
Sloan said we should create jobs for the long term. “You can say that fracking is providing jobs, but researching green technology and going in the direction of sustainability also provides jobs. One well can be fracked 18 times. When it’s done it’s done,” she said.
Sloan also said there are health risks associated with working on wells. “It’s not a safe job, nor is it a healthy job for the workers or people who live near the drilling sites, and I think it’s an irresponsible practice,” Sloan said. “If people that live near the wells are getting sick, imagine the affects on the people who are working directly with the chemicals themselves. A lot of them don’t even know what they’re dealing with—they don’t know the danger they are in.”
“If you live close to fracking sites, you have to worry about the chemicals that are injected in with the water that’s shot down into the ground to release natural gas pockets. When that fluid comes back up, it’s wastewater that is gathered in a plastic-lined pit where it just sits until trucked off, and that wastewater can be highly toxic,” said Sloan.
Ellie Brown ’12, an environmental studies major said, “I find particularly disturbing that water is being mostly affected, since water does not exist within bounds but spreads everywhere, often unseen. And once contaminants get into water, it is very hard to remove them.”
Regarding Sloan’s concerns Henderson said many people are misinformed by only looking at one side of the debate: “Currently, natural gas industries are recycling the water that is being used for the fracking process. In some cases, they do have to use radioactive chemicals, but these chemicals are taken away and treated as such.”
Energy Concerns Related to Fracking
Henderson sees natural gas as the only viable option for the future. “Right now, wind, solar, and hydro power combined account for less than three percent of our nation’s energy,” he said. “If we take out natural gas, which accounts for 40 percent of our energy, two options remain: either we import natural gas from the Middle East, which we obviously don’t want to do, or we increase coal, which is extremely bad for the environment.”
Chiarenzelli said that although environmental challenges related to fracking are present, “we have an insatiable demand for energy. Of course, regulation is needed to ensure environmentally responsible practice,” he said.
“You can call it greener if you want to,” said Sloan, “but when it comes to gas, coal, and oil, there is no greener. You can’t keep applying the label to these things and think you’re solving the problem. We need to move beyond gas, coal, and oil.”
Henderson said he postulates that there are two things on the minds of the American people right now—unemployment and “green” living. “The use of natural gas can speak to both of these things in a very short time,” he said.
There’s a lack of trust in the industry,” Henderson said, “and following the events of the BP oil spill in the gulf, its understandable to have some amount of distrust on top of the general distrust of corporations in America.”
“There are risks in every industry,” Henderson said. “The good thing about the anti-fracking movement is that it has raised awareness and will encourage natural gas companies to be honest. I think they know that if they do mess up, it’ll be over for them.”
Sloan said she encourages students and community members to make their opinions known now: “The reason the fracking debate is so important at the moment is because of Governor Cuomo’s upcoming decision. We want him to know that it’s not safe and that people care. It’s easy to feel disheartened and feel like nothing’s making a difference, but it’s better to try than to look back and ask, ‘is there anything I could have done to prevent this?’”