April 11, 2013
Out of breath and sweating, I flashed my student ID card and stepped onto a bus branded with the slur: “powered by clean, natural gas.” Looks like the work of a clever magician revealing only the point of combustion, rather than exposing the pollution lurking in every step of extraction of “natural” gas.
As a student at UC Berkeley, I’ve realized natural gas is a complex, politicized issue, and the media often provides the public with misinformation. The media frames fracking as a “clean burning” “bridge fuel” which will make America “energy independent.” Advertisements, talk about gas as an abundant source of domestic energy, which will “free” us from dependence on foreign oil and coal.
When I first heard the term “fracking,” I did not understand the reference, unless of course they were talking about Battle Star Galactica. After staring open mouthed at a documentary or three, and obsessively researching at UC Berkeley, the sweet smell of controversy still lingers in the wake of pressing political priorities—energy and GDP.
“Fracking” is short for hydraulic fracturing, or the controversial technique used to extract oil or natural gas, located thousands of feet underground, using millions of gallons of water, sand, and thousands of gallons of chemicals. So what’s the fracking problem?
TV and multimedia narratives persuade people to believe that natural gas extraction is not a risky business. The truth is, when you hear “unconventional gas” mentioned in commercials, they are not referring to simply tapping a giant underground gas reservoir, but rather, shattering shale rock with high pressure chemical water to release gas bubbles tightly contained within the rock.
You might have heard about Halliburton- an oil and gas company from Texas, and BFF of George Bush- who “revolutionized” the industry in 1991 with technology to drill horizontally- in multiple directions, multiple times. This meant they could drill beneath people’s homes without the owner’s consent! Second, they introduced liquid chemical cocktails called “slick water.” This toxic lube maintains the intense pressure necessary to physically fracture the rock at depths averaging 10,000 feet underground, releasing the gas.
To make it worse, companies are not required to disclose the chemical cocktail recipes to the public, because of protection under Trade Secret Laws. The chemicals are claimed to be proprietary information, essential to protecting their profit margins. Not only is the slickwater riddled with ingredients that are known carcinogens (cancer causing), or endocrine disrupters (hormone mimickers), but at depths of 10,000 feet below the surface, naturally occurring arsenic and often radioactive materials join with the slickwater. Unfortunately, only about 50% of processed water returns to the surface, and is considered hazardous waste.
This gas is none other than the gas that forms inside the bellies of you and me! It is the same gas cows burp up all day, every day, at factory farms. It is the same gas forming inside sealed landfills. It the same powerful green house gas that scientists warn to be more potent than carbon dioxide by contributing to global warming and climate change. The gas itself is primarily, methane; a colorless, odorless gas that is flammable, thus, an excellent source of energy.
Why are we targeting a potent green house gas as a source of energy? Ode to the dollar bills, the only grease making the economic wheels go-round. Flash back to 2005, when the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act allowed companies- such as Halliburton- to remain exempt from critical laws that protect social and environmental justice. Because of this legislation, oil and gas drilling companies who frack, do not have to follow or pay for violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the public’s Right to Know Act. This issue is not about a “bridge fuel” and it’s not about “freedom.” The Energy Policy Act made “unconventional” gas, an artificially profitable resource to increase GDP- BOOM.
Fracking needs some major policy reform to hold companies accountable to federal regulations, which protect human health, such as the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. At the very least, the public should have the Right to Know! The boom needs to slow while scientists carefully evaluate the climate impact of fugitive methane “leaking” into the atmosphere from every fracking drill site.
By: Shannon Davis, a student at UC Berkeley and a Commissioner for the City of Berkley’s Zero Waste Commission