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This is a story about water, the land surrounding it and the lives it sustains. Clean water should be a right: there is no life without it. New York is what you might call a “water state.” Its rivers and their tributaries only start with the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware and the Susquehanna. The best known of its lakes are Great Lakes Erie and Ontario, Lake George and the Finger Lakes. Its brooks, creeks and trout streams are fishermen’s lore.
Far below this rippling wealth there’s a vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale. Stretching through southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, the shale contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life that died 400 million years ago. Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a nuclear bomb to unleash it. That idea died, but it’s been reborn in the form of a technology invented by Halliburton Corporation: high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—“fracking” for short.
Fracking uses prodigious amounts of water laced with sand and a startling menu of poisonous chemicals to blast the methane out of the shale. At hyperbaric bomb-like pressures, this technology propels five to seven million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water a mile or so down a well bore into the shale.
Up comes the methane—along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals and other substances that were also in the shale, among them radioactive elements and carcinogens. There are 400,000 such wells in the United States. Surrounded by rumbling machinery, serviced by tens of thousands of diesel trucks, this nightmare technology for energy release has turned rural areas in thirty-four American states into toxic industrial zones.
Shale gas isn’t the conventional kind that lit your grandmother’s stove. It’s one of those “extreme energy” forms so difficult to produce that merely accessing them poses unprecedented dangers to the planet. In every fracking state but New York, where a moratorium against the process has been in effect since 2010, the gas industry has contaminated ground water, sickened people, poisoned livestock and killed wildlife.
At a time when the International Energy Agency reports that we have five more years of fossil-fuel use at current levels before the planet goes into irreversible climate change, fracking has a greenhouse gas footprint larger than that of coal. And with the greatest water crisis in human history underway, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of purposely-poisoned fresh water into the earth. As for the trillions (repeat: trillions) of gallons of wastewater generated by the industry, getting rid of it is its own story. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes: eleven in Ohio alone (normally not an earthquake zone) over the past year.