Photo by Shannon DavisBeneath Pennsylvania and five other states, locked within tight layers of shale rock, dwells 141 trillion cubic feet of retrievable natural gas (Blohm et al, 2012: 358). This gas has been sequestered within the Marcellus Shale since the Devonian period, until recent technological advances in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” revolutionized its rapid extraction (Davis et al, 2012: 25). Due to the underground nature of this resource, access is limited and complicated; however, some actors can accumulate profit with strategic mechanisms, while other human and non human actors living above ground endure the consequences. An emerging conflict over the contamination of drinking water presents itself as one of the many consequences of fracking without regulations (Wiseman, 2008: 115). Natural gas companies claim harnessing this domestic energy hot-spot will allow the US to be energy independent from foreign oil, and become a major liquefied natural gas exporter by 2021 (Nuttall et al, 2012: 573). This represents a struggle to control new energy markets on a national and international scale. The counter claim insists that although natural gas is a cleaner burning energy alternative to coal and petroleum, it is not sustainable, and the benefits are outweighed by the hazardous extraction process, on a local scale. This conflict represents a struggle over the discursive meaning of energy independence, confronts flaws in past Federal legislation, and challenges the reality of the United State’s tradeoff between foreign oil and mass contamination of water sheds. This paper argues that the rapid increase in fracking was facilitated by exemption from regulations, which created a profitable opportunity to commodify this underground resource without social or environmental accountability. Utilizing political ecology and a post structuralist approach, this paper will situate the conflict over contaminated water within the socio-natural history of natural gas extraction, and analyze how the commodification of natural gas is paired with strategic discursive practices to influence cultural politics, and reinforce the conflict.
The nature of this conflict is embedded in the name “hydraulic” fracturing, because the process of extracting shale gas depends on access to clean water, as well as technology, capital, labor, and land. The conflict over contaminated water is situated in the midst of a domestic underground land grab. Historically, Pennsylvanians have mined for underground resources such as coal, to fuel the Industrial Revolution’s demand to develop the railroad. Driven by the incentives of wealth and economic growth, coal mining raged on without any environmental regulations. By 1920, this resulted in the pollution and contamination of 2,400 miles of Pennsylvania’s streams, due to point sourced acid runoff from the coal mines (Allen, 2012: 51). However, polluted streams were just the beginning of Pennsylvania’s conflict over contaminated water. Nearly forty percent of daily water consumption is withdrawn by the energy sector (Hayes, 2012: 385). Given that water is a common-pool resource, it is subtractable, which means everyone has the right to access it, restricted only by its finite nature, and the consequences of excessive pollution.
Extracting natural gas has occurred since the 1800s; although, the gas was siphoned from underground reservoirs within formations of impermeable rock (Negi et al, 2012). By the 1940s, the technique of hydraulic fracturing was introduced as a way to extract previously unreachable gas trapped inside shale (Davis et al, 2012: 4). The formation of shale gas requires methanogens to break down organic compounds over the course of a million year biogenic process. The gas itself is a byproduct of decomposed organic compounds through an anaerobic process; therefore, it collects within the same spatial boundaries where it was created (Osborn et al, 2010: 456). Access to the gas is dependent on several mechanisms. First, an actor or group of actors must have access to technology to locate the shale and build a drill site. Second, the actors must obtain a permit to drill on the land above the shale deposit, which is granted by the Federal Government’s Department of Energy (Rogner, 2012: 149). Next, labor must be obtained to operate the machinery, and physically drill down to extract, process and redistribute the materials. Along every step of extraction, capital is necessary to acquire each of these mechanisms of access. Those who do not have political power, or capital to invest in technology, labor and other extraction resources cannot access natural gas. Gas is retrieved by drilling vertically 6,100 feet into the ground, on average (Weinhold, 2012: 272). Then, between five and eight millions of gallons of water, sand, and a mysterious “trade secret” chemical solution is injected into the well, under extreme pressure (Finewood, et al, 2012: 73). The immense pressure fractures the rock, while the lubricated aqueous solution surfaces the gas for commodification above ground. Water exiting the well is referred to as “processed water” and is handled in a variety of controversial ways, such as evaporation and off-site injection wells. Both have the potential to contaminate the air, soil, and ground water with chemicals such as mercury, arsenic, “benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, mixed xylenes, n-hexane, carbonyl sulfide, ethylene glycol, and 2,2,4-trimethylpentane” which disrupt the endocrine system and likely cause cancer (Weinhold, 2012: 272). There is evidence suggesting that the injection wells can also be linked with causing minor earthquakes, as a result of injecting the often radioactive fluid deep underground in over 680,000 wells throughout the United States (Ehrenberg, 2012: 20).
In the late 1990s, Texas oil and gas drilling companies such as Halliburton, Mitchell Energy and Conoco Phillips benefited from a technological innovation that changed the industry completely. They discovered a way to drill horizontally, in multiple directions, multiple times from the same drill site. This revolutionized the industry in several ways, because prior to this innovation the Marcellus Shale was considered economically unviable (Morris, 2012: 25). The technology to drill horizontally represents a mechanism of access to extract specific place-based deposits. As a result, the industry increased production by 48% per year, between 2006 and 2010 alone (Hayes, 2012: 385). Companies now had the ability to transcend property lines by drilling horizontally underground. Shale located beneath a private residence could now be extracted, which demonstrates how drillers gained access to other people’s properties as a result of specific technology, as opposed to policy or consent (Herman and Chomsky, 2002: 2). Fracking could now encroach on more underground territory with manufactured consent of people living above the shale formations, as there were no regulations to monitor this new technique. Because of the fluid nature of water, and the newly splintered land, it is comprehensible how Pennsylvanians experienced contaminated drinking water after fracking occurred near their property, as shown in the Documentary Gas Land (Gas Land, 2010). Under the protection of “Trade Secretes” the chemical recipe seeping into ground water did not have to be publically disclosed, making conflict impossible to avoid, and reinforcing their “right” to profit (Wiseman 2011: 2). The ability to drill horizontally often bypassed the need to drill from an “ideal” location above ground, creating the opportunity to reach the shale from underground, rather than paying royalties to a homeowner aboveground. This provided strategic mechanisms of access and the opportunity to accumulate an estimated one trillion dollars in profits, while leaving the community fractured and without compensation. (Nuttall et al, 2012: 573). Natural gas extraction utilizes the technique of hydraulic fracturing as a neoliberal practice, to exploit a place-based resource and generate profit, while infringing on the rights of the public to have access to safe drinking water and clean air.
The US government reinforced the narrative surrounding America’s goal for energy independence by supporting the energy market’s “right” to profits with policy exemptions. There are several policies which contribute to the oppression and marginality of a particular set of actors, meanwhile, allowing other actors to accumulate capital and dominate the domestic energy market. In 2005, the Bush Administration passed an Energy Policy Act permitting fourteen major oil and gas companies, such as Conoco Phillips, Halliburton, and Mitchell Energy to utilize horizontal hydraulic fracturing to drill for gas located within shale rock, without regulations. This Act allowed companies to frack without following the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, or the Right to Know Act. Out of the disclosed seven-hundred-fifty chemicals used in fracking fluid, twenty five are considered hazardous under the Clean Air Act, and fourteen are known human carcinogens under the regulation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (Ehrenberg, 2012: 22-25). Exemption allowed the industry to maintain economic profitability and refrain from paying for their environmental externalities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced natural gas companies must comply with a new regulation to capture target emissions within sixty days of April 18, 2012. However, industry actors renegotiated the deadline for compliance to January 2015, despite the original proposal (Weinhold, 2012: 272). This demonstrates the political leverage and power within the natural gas industry to influence government institutions to ensure that their profits come before social and environmental accountability.
To justify land use practices, strategic hegemonic discourse is used to create narratives and establish new norms, aiding in the production of the “fictitious commodity,” natural gas (Fortmann, 1995: 1055). Marketing regimes describe the resource as the “perfect bridge fuel” during the transition from petroleum, in other words: profits come before sustainability. Claims supporting fracking for gas describe it as an “environmentally friendly practice” and a “clean” alternative to coal and oil, because it releases less amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. However, with 1,744 trillion cubic feet of shale available for exploitation, it will only provide Americans with enough energy to last an estimated 90-116 years. (Kargbo et al, 2010: 5679). Clearly, that is not a sustainable investment, unless the perspective is situated in the industry, in which case it provides another lifetime of profits. The “independent” “American” identity is use to mobilize the claim embedded in the larger “Patriotic American” discourse associated with the idea that foreign oil is inherently “bad,” while natural gas is a “good” “domestic” alternative that we can switch to immediately (Finewood, et al, 2012: 72). Cities in multiple states have reinforced the “clean alternative” claims by institutionalizing the demand, through the purchase of municipal garbage trucks and busses, powered by natural gas. Other corporations such as ATT&T, Verison, and UPS have also converted their delivery trucks to “American, natural gas” and they claim that the price is half the cost of gasoline, although, it is artificially cheaper because external costs are not factored in. (ANGA. 2012). Contrasting with the claim that natural gas is an “environmentally friendly” alternative fuel, the United States oil and gas industry produces more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than any other industry, and emits about 40% of the Nation’s methane into the atmosphere (Weinhold, 2012: 272). On August 7, 2012, America’s Natural Gas Alliance launched a commercial about Pennsylvania’s “abundant” natural gas. They claim all energy development comes with risk, but Pennsylvania can put American’s in control of dependable energy and a sustainable future (ANGA). This narrative is misleading as they fail to mention that they risk contaminating drinking water with known carcinogens, neurotoxins, and volatile compounds such as toluene, xlyene, benzene, ethylbenzene, and ozone which causes irreversible lung damage and cancer (Hayes, 2012: 385). Natural gas consists primarily of methane, a major contributor to climate change, and also contains carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide (Ehrenberg, 2012: 20). Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, over twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide; thus, despite the claim that natural gas is a cleaner “burning” alternative to petroleum, it’s natural state is a greenhouse gas, and arguably worse than conventional oil (Weinhold, 2012: 272).
Analyzing this conflict from a political ecology perspective, it becomes clear that oil and gas drilling companies have dominating claims surrounding America’s future with energy. Despite their claims, natural gas companies’ goals are not to power America with “clean” fuel alternatives. Rather, their main goal is to establish socially constructed markets for new commodities, accumulate capital, wealth, and political leverage. This paper deconstructed how the history of fracking for natural gas represents more than a singular meaning of American energy independence. The conflict is deeply embedded in the neoliberal practice of dominating underground resources in acts of accumulation. There were two innovations that made the commodification of natural gas economically feasible to market as an alternative to conventional gas: hydraulic fracturing, and horizontal drilling (Perkins, 2012: 44). Economic profits were maintainable and protected by government policies ensured that companies did not have to disclose their chemical fracking solutions to the public. Withholding information, paired with misleading “green-washed” marketing campaigns, represent specific discursive practices used to disguise underground land grabs and acts of accumulation as an opportunity to “keep America free,” when in reality, it is a strategy to capitalize on a temporary market. Although natural gas is a cleaner burning alternative to oil, it is a finite resource and is not sustainable for future generations. Thus, moving forward in the natural gas industry, Americans would benefit from repealing the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005. This would hold oil and gas companies socially and environmentally accountable for their practices, and limit the marginalization of human and non human actors who depend on clean water, air and land to sustain life.
By: Shannon Davis, Contributor
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