The Land Grabs and the Carelessness of Fracking

By Nick Braune…

I am new to this issue and it has some technical sides, but I’ve learned enough about fracking lately to be concerned.

“Fracking” is short for hydraulic fracturing. A narrow hole is drilled deep down into the ground.  According to the website for the excellent documentary “Gasland,” produced by Josh Fox, drilling can go down 8,000 feet, 24 football fields down. Then a mix of water, sand and chemicals is repeatedly shot down the hole, with very high pressure, cracking open the hard shale and rock and releasing treasured natural gas.

Although across the country there is opposition to it, and although some areas have stopped fracking because it ruins the land and the water and causes mini earthquakes, it’s rampant in Texas. Remember when candidate Perry bragged about the Texas economy? — Well, fracking did contribute to that little boost in employment.  You can see signs of fracking driving from McAllen to San Antonio; it’s all over the state. (Incidentally, have you noticed all the ads recently for “clean,” “natural” gas?  These ads alone make me suspicious.)

The “Gasland” documentary received a 2011 Academy Award nomination.  One famous scene features a fellow in rural Pennsylvania where fracking is happening.  He showed the camera team that if he turned on his kitchen faucet for water, there would also be gas and chemicals coming out.  He held a lighter to the faucet and it looked like a flaming torch coming out — that’s how much gas and chemicals were in his water!  Matt Damon also is planning a film about the fracking craze, “The Promised Land.”

According to the “Gasland” website, in 2005 a Bush/Cheney energy bill created what’s called the “Halliburton loophole,” preventing environmentalists from objecting to fracking on the basis of the Clean Water Act, and exempting companies from disclosing the chemicals used in the process.  Now there is a speculative rush all over the country to get into it; the riches being promised by natural gas fracking are causing quite a burstable investment bubble.

A Reuters report (October 3) on gas “land grab” practices interviewed a couple in Arlington Texas who did not want to sell drilling rights to Chesapeake Energy Corporation — the couple opposed fracking.  (Watch how Gov. Perry’s Texas really respects property rights.)  The couple was pressured and offered money but would not sell, so Chesapeake went to a Texas state agency, got what is called an “exception,” and drilled under them anyhow.  The couple received no money.  Reuters investigated and found that Chesapeake has asked Texas for 1,628 such exceptions.  The state agency has turned down only five exception requests and granted all the rest.  And Exxon-Mobil has received about 800 such exceptions. 

I emailed Alyssa Burgin, an environmentalist who watches land and water issues and directs the Texas Drought Project, and I asked if the Reuter’s article was exaggerating about “land grab” practices. She agreed with the article.

Burgin said, when “landmen” approach landowners they often lie. “Landmen lie about how much money owners will receive, and about how clean they will leave the land. Worse, even when people clearly own both surface and minerals, landowners are told that they had better sign, or the companies will drill right next door, horizontally burrow under, and get their oil or gas anyway — so they ‘might as well sign.’”

Fracking is mean business, from beginning to end.     [This article first appeared in “Reflection and Change” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, 10-7-12, but let me add here the following paragraphs as a postscript.] 

I also asked Alyssa Burgin a follow-up question about water issues, which I know she follows.  I had attended a presentation she helped organize in Corpus Christi, but had arrived late and didn’t quite understand if franking was a water-issue problem because it uses too much water or because it poisons the water somehow.  Her answer was interesting:

“There are two issues with water. First, I will address ‘produced’ water, the water that is used to frack and then either left in open pits or hauled away to who knows where. They use seven to ten million gallons of water per frack per hole in the Eagle Ford. That water is polluted with a laundry list of toxins–benzene, toluene, and a couple of hundred more chemicals, many of which are “proprietary,” and thus not revealed to the public. Some drillers say they can clean up the water to make it potable. Not possible. Even if there were a way to remove all the chemicals, in South Texas, there is so much uranium below ground that the water becomes radioactive. Now, the areas where they are fracking are among some of the most active farming areas–corn, cotton, alfalfa. Most of those crops died in this year’s drought, and it was not unusual to see dead corn next to fracking fields. The drillers compare their water use to water acreage used for agriculture in this state. But the agricultural water used returns to the hydrological cycle through trans-evaporation. The produced water does not.  

“And additionally, the second issue–there are some recorded incidents of contamination of wells and underground water resources from fracking. The industry says this is not true, but that is because they literally pay people to shut up; their legal awards to the victims require a gag order. No joke. You can drive through areas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania where every single house has a big water tank in the yard, furnished by the same exact company. Clearly they are getting water as a result of an agreement with the drillers.  Unfortunately, because of short-sighted Texas law, and because we have a patchwork of water regs that vary from county to county, we have almost no way of determining how much of our water is gone. Forever.”

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