Perhaps you'll appreciate the irony of this statement when I tell you that it turns out my scenic suburban town sits on the Barnett Shale, a large shale natural gas deposit, and they are drilling in Flower Mound. The town is actually allowing around 24 gas wells to be put in the middle of suburbia. Drilling in the area isn't a new occurrence. Over the last few years drill sites have popped up throughout the area. However, the two dozen wells being drilled now at the Hilliard site will be less than 1500 feet from subdivisions, an elementary school, a middle school and there is a church nearby. You can see the density of the area, as well as the proximity of the site to the schools and neighborhoods here, How is this not ugly?
Now, before I go any further, I acknowledge that I'm a natural gas consumer. I also know that natural gas is a cleaner source of energy than coal, albeit not as clean as solar, wind or other renewable energy sources. Also, in light of the recent oil drilling disaster in the gulf, it's probably a whole lot safer to extract gas than oil, right? Well, no, not really. Not the way it's being done right now and definitely not so close to schools, a church and densely populated subdivisions. Since horizontal gas drilling technology has become available, many environmental and health issues have come to light.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "...natural gas production facilities emit pollutants such as hazardous air pollutants (HAP's) and volatile organic compounds (VOC's). These pollutants can contribute to health problems..." "While regulations limit the amount of emissions [from these facilities], dangerous releases of HAP's can occur if [a facility] does not operate in compliance with regulations." Even though there are federal, state and local regulations in place that attempt to protect us from dangerous HAP's and VOC's, evidently the accidental and/or intentional release of dangerous pollutants into the environment is a very real consequence of gas drilling.
The issue of our ground water becoming contaminated is documented. In 2005, the oil and gas industry was granted an exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which is in place to protect our drinking water supply. Earthworks Action states that, "at the state level, most oil and gas agencies do not require companies to report the volumes or names of chemicals being injected during [the gas drilling process]. Thus, neither the government nor the public can evaluate the risks posed by injecting these fluids underground..." This is a result of the something called the Halliburton Loophole. Yep, you might recognize that name, especially if you're from Texas. Halliburton patented the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" method used to help extract the natural gas. The exemption is believed to have resulted from Dick Cheney who was Vice President at the time and also happened to be the CEO of Halliburton.
Noteworthy are the public health agencies who have attempted to gather data about the health effects experienced by people living near gas drilling sites. One of these is Garfield County, Colorado's department of public health which took on the task of assessing the health impacts relating to gas drilling that are affecting the people living in their area. The following charts from their study illustrate some of their findings (click on charts to enlarge):
Clearly, health and environmental concerns are continually being raised with regard to shale gas drilling. Recent legislation has been passed by Congress that orders the EPA to study the chemicals used in the natural gas extraction process. Amazingly, many of the chemicals used in the fracking process have not been disclosed by companies because they consider them trade secrets. As of the end of September, the EPA was holding hearings and had requested nine drilling companies to release information about the chemicals they use. A report should be completed by 2012. Although I'm hopeful that the EPA is working to protect our environment and our health, this is the same agency that previously filed a flawed report on fracking. The flaws were revealed by an EPA insider named Weston Wilson. Thankfully, he blew the whistle by writing a letter to congress about the risks he believes this process poses to drinking water.
The risk doesn't end with the HAP's and VOC's entering our air and water and potentially jeopardizing our health. Just consider the Gulf oil spill. Wasn't that rig's blow out preventer supposed to be fail safe? Haven't we learned from the catastrophic gas well "accidents" that have occurred in Virginia, Louisiana and Pennsylvania? These are only a handful of the disasters that have happened since gas drilling has accelerated. I don't even want to think about the possibility of an event occurring 1200 feet from an elementary and middle school.
It's a sad reality that our government officials are strongly influenced by lobbyists representing big business interests, and the oil and gas industry ranks up there with some of the most powerful. However, call me naive, but I believe that as their constituents we do exert some influence ourselves. With that thought in mind, if you're wondering like I was what actions we might take to protect our air, our water and our health, I suggest the following:
- We can let our government officials know that we want our water protected. Contact them and ask them to support the FRAC Act here.
- For concerns about air quality, if you live in Texas you can contact the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), or contact your state and local elected officials and urge them to consider stronger regulation of toxic gases and VOC's that threaten our environment and our health.
Update 10/10: I wanted to learn more about the natural gas drilling process. This educational video made by the Penn State Cooperative Extension, shows a natural gas well operation site. What I know about gas drilling could fill a thimble, so I submit my comments about the video mostly from the observational perspective. What I notice: 1) the noise; 2) the amount of heavy equipment 3) the number of box cars for hauling water, chemicals, sand, etc? 4) site access roads. If we all work together to shift toward cleaner energy sources, perhaps your neighborhood can be spared all this "inconvenience."
Town of Flower Mound http://www.flower-mound.com/index.php