The Next Drilling Disaster?
A tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, with Victoria Switzer is a bumpy ride over torn-up roads, around parking lots filled with heavy machinery and storage tanks, and past well pads that not long ago were forests. The winter here was quiet, but with the thawing ground came the return of the rigs, the trucks, the constant noise and lights of a twenty-four-hour-a-day gas drilling operation. "It's a modern-day Deadwood out here," Switzer says, likening the activity to the gold rush. "No rules, no regs, just rigs."
The "occupation," as she calls it, hasn't just transformed Dimock into an industrial hub; it has also damaged the local water supply and put residents' health at risk. After a stray drill bit banged four wells in 2008, Switzer says, weird things started happening to people's water: some flushed black, some orange, some turned bubbly. One well exploded, the result of methane migration, and residents say elevated metal and toluene levels have ruined twelve others. Then, in September 2009, about 8,000 gallons of hazardous drilling fluids spilled into nearby fields and creeks. The contamination and related health problems have prompted fifteen families to file suit against Cabot Oil and Gas, the primary leaseholder in the area, alleging fraud and contract violation and seeking to stop the damage from spreading.
If she could do it all over again, Switzer says, she never would have signed the 2006 drilling lease that helped open Pandora's Box here. But at the time, she'd never heard of hydrofracking—the Cabot representative didn't mention the word to her when he gained the rights to drill on her land. The story of gas drilling in Dimock begins more than a mile below the earth's surface in the Marcellus Shale, a huge rock formation that extends from New York to Tennessee. Some geologists estimate that the Marcellus contains enough shale gas to power the United States for two decades. But the gas is caught in millions of tiny pores and can be extracted only through hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, a controversial process that requires blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep underground to create fissures that open the pores and free gas to rise to the surface.
Hydrofracking is a hugely lucrative and rapidly expanding industry—the consulting firm PFC Energy recently reported that shale gas production accounts for about 10 percent of US natural gas production, up from 1 percent in 2000. It is bolstered not only by a powerful lobby but also by growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change and America's dependence on foreign oil. In recent years, a broad coalition of energy analysts and government officials have embraced domestic natural gas as a promising "bridge fuel" that could help smooth the transition from more carbon-intensive fossil fuels like oil and coal to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The catch, though, is that the natural gas industry shares the same history as other energy industries operating in the United States. A string of recent disasters—including the TVA coal ash spill, the Massey coal mine explosion and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—have demonstrated all too vividly that failure to regulate and oversee resource extraction can lead to catastrophe. Some fear that Dimock is the first natural gas casualty, an early warning of what could happen on a much larger scale if fracking spreads unchecked to other residential areas in the Marcellus region and across the country.
For a long time, shale gas was thought to be unattainable. But in the 1990s, first in Texas and later in other Western states, new drilling techniques, sophisticated technology and industry exemptions from environmental laws paved the way for economically viable fracking. Many of those exemptions—from provisions in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—are longstanding. The most notable among them was introduced by Vice President Dick Cheney as an amendment to the 2005 energy bill. The so-called Halliburton Loophole, named after Cheney's former employer and the company that pioneered the fracking process in the 1940s, stripped the EPA's authority to regulate hydrofracking through the Safe Water Drinking Act. Companies were essentially given free rein to drill however and wherever they see fit, and to use and dispose of proprietary fracking fluids without any disclosure or safety requirements. The only remaining shred of federal oversight was a voluntary agreement with the three largest companies not to use diesel fuel—which they proceeded to ignore.
Drilling is now regulated entirely at the state level, where there is not nearly enough manpower to handle the volume of wells. In 2008 thirty-five inspectors were responsible for more than 74,000 wells in Pennsylvania (with promises to hire sixty-eight more as Marcellus drilling grows); nineteen inspectors covered more than 13,000 wells in New York; and twenty-four oversaw more than 64,000 wells in Ohio.
With staff stretched so thin, it's nearly impossible to get the job done well, says Dusty Horwitt, a senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group. In January Horwitt released a study warning that regulators in several drill states—including Pennsylvania and New York—don't check to see if companies are using diesel or other harmful distillates. He also found that many state EPA officials are unclear on the stipulations surrounding fracking regulation. In many cases, the report estimates, the concentration of petroleum distillates used in a single well could be enough to contaminate 650 million gallons of water—the same amount consumed daily by New York City residents. In a worst-case scenario, the amount of distillates in a well could be enough to pollute more than 10 billion gallons of water.
Keeping track of the materials used in fracking is crucial, says Theo Colborn, a Colorado-based endocrinologist who monitors the impact of industrial chemicals on human health. "It's the same kind of very high-tech stuff that we use in airplanes," she explains. "If we didn't use some very dangerous stuff in airplanes, as hydraulic fluids to reduce friction, we wouldn't be flying." Colborn has been researching hydrofracking operations since 2004. Of the 246 products on a partial list of drilling and fracking chemicals used in Colorado, obtained with help from the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, she found that 228 have at least one adverse health effect. Most are known to have multiple negative health impacts, and many are endocrine disruptors, which cause developmental, reproductive and neurological harm. She also found diesel and benzene, which is a carcinogen and is toxic at very low levels.