Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Natural-gas production's environmental problems ignored in rush to maintain fossil-fuel use

CROSS CURRENTS : Frack, rattle and roll
Fran Alexander frana@nwarktimes.com
Posted on Monday, July 28, 2008
URL: http://www.nwanews.com/nwat/Editorial/67585/
“ The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘ I’m from the government, and I’m here to help. ’ ” — Ronald Reagan It has occurred to me than anyone too young to know that Bill Haley and His Comets made the song, “ Shake, Rattle, and Roll, ” famous in the early ’ 50 s will not catch the beat of this article’s title. That song’s refrain, however, keeps humming in my soul as I think about what is going on underground in Arkansas and all across the country. Perversely, Ronnie Reagan’s ghost seems to be haunting me as well.

Arkansawyers have begun to realize that there is a big deal happening in the center of their state north of Little Rock and Conway, and it has rattled land and mineral rights owners, small towns, the governor and the state legislature. There’s natural gas in them-thar hills, and we all know anything resembling an energy resource these days has speculators, investors, politicians and energy companies slathering and slobbering in excitement. With a wad of billions for the state economy (yes, with a “ b” and ranging from $ 5. 5 billion between 2005 and 2008 to speculations of $ 17. 9 billion over several years ), a paltry enviro-conscious gnat of a citizen babbling, “ Uh, any money or rules for protecting the land, air and water ? ” might as well step in front of a freight train opened at full throttle. For example, when state representative Betty Pickett of Conway County tried to bring up rational environmental issues in a resolution she hoped would calm the feeding frenzy at the state legislature, those good ole boys, with all the manners of hogs at the trough, wouldn’t even let her finish her presentation. When the Sierra Club tried a proposal to increase the number of Oil and Gas Commission regulators to help inspect the thousands of wells to be drilled (there are now only eight ), their measure failed.

“ Don’t wanna hear it” is the response when pesky ethical details get whispered in the halls of Arkansas power so you, as a citizen, should not be surprised in the years to come that reports will probably be seeping out that drilling in the Fayetteville Shale Play is costing a lot. If all it costs us is just money, that will be the ideal bad consequence.

The “ play” is mostly taking place in Van Buren, Faulkner and White counties, although Cleburne, Conway and Pope also get to reap some of the economic windfall. Hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax revenues and perhaps 10, 000 jobs certainly smack of prosperity, as well it should when little physical or fiscal overhead is being figured into calculations.

As usual, we old spoiler environmentalists with zilch influence just keep raining on parades and for the same old reasons. We would love to change our tune, but the environment and human health continue to subsidize bizness-asusual. Fracking this shale for gas production is just a new twist on the same old methods we humans have always used to rape the Earth for resources.

Drilling for gas the easy way involved putting pipes into the Earth in the right places and capturing the usable gas that spewed out. To release gas captured in shale layers, however, the rock must be fraced, fracked or fractured (pick one ). This particular formation of shale being “ played ” (oil and gas geologic prospecting and extraction ) comes closest to the surface here in Fayetteville, hence its name, and runs deeper in the central Arkansas counties, down some 5, 000 feet in places. Wells are drilled down to the seam, then make an arching right-angle turn horizontally into the narrow shale layer for a few more thousand feet. Next, approximately 1 to 5 million gallons of water per well is mixed with drilling sand and a soup of chemicals and injected into the shale at high pressure. This fracks the rock and releases the gas that is then transported to markets through pipelines lacing across Arkansas and other states. (Pipelines bring a whole different set of problems. )

Keep in mind that once this water is removed from the surface of the land from streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, municipal water supplies, etc., it is not supposed to be returned to the water supply. Approximately 40 percent to 60 percent that is pumped into the shale comes back up, however, carrying the toxic drilling fluids and can also contain naturally occurring hazardous baddies like mercury, arsenic, radioactive materials, hydrogen sulfide and BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene ). And where does it go ?

The millions of gallons of poisoned water can be re-injected into special deep wells in the hope, with no guarantee, that it will stay in formations away from fresh water aquifers. It is sometimes dumped in open impoundments where its chemicals evaporate into the air. Wherever it goes requires transport, and that exposes it to the environment and us yet again.

Also, oil and gas facilities can release more than 50 toxic air pollutants from a variety of sources, according to a spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council. Yet in Arkansas these wells can be legally sited as close as 100 feet from a home, school, business, etc. Across the nation, wells are being drilled in parks, golf courses, national forests and neighborhoods — anywhere the mineral rights below have been leased is fair game.

“ I’m from the government, and I won’t help you, ” is more what is happening these days, and even scarier is knowing instead that the real help is going to the energy companies so they do not have to worry about pesky pollution details. Federal regulations exempt oil and gas exploration and production from the tough parts of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Super Fund Law, the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act and the Toxic Release Inventory (which would require you be told when or if you are or could be exposed to production toxins ).

From Arkansas’ new millions that mineral owners will pay the state in severance taxes, 95 percent will fund highways and 5 percent will go to the general fund. So far it looks like the environment and human health will again sponsor our energy addiction.

Next time: Will we do anything about this situation ?

Fran Alexander is a local resident and an active environmentalist.

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