Over 1,000 people marched in Albany, New York on August 27 in a
demonstration against fracking. They were protesting New York Governor
Andrew Cuomo’s plan to open up parts of New York to fracking. Until now
fracking has been banned in New York, but after he took office Cuomo
ordered a study of the issue. After four years the study commissioners
are about to issue their report, and when they do Cuomo has warned
environmental groups he plans to OK fracking in some parts of the
state. He’ll probably allow it to begin along the Southern Tier, the
border with Pennsylvania, where fracking has already begun.
The protesters targeted Cuomo with banners, signs and cardboard caricatures. They advised him to “just say no” and chanted, “Make fracking a crime!” The most common sign was “Ban fracking now!”, but many demonstrators carried homemade signs with their individual sentiments like “Don’t frack my farm!” and “Think your water is safe? Think again!” The march stopped in front of government office buildings in the state capital and finished with a rally at a nature preserve.
The protest was sponsored by an umbrella coalition of groups called “Don’t Frack New York.” These groups and others have joined together to sponsor a “Global Frackdown” coming September 22, which will feature teach-ins in many different localities. The oil and gas industry is finding itself facing a horde of local environmental groups as it tries to push fracking into localities and states not yet impacted by it. Meanwhile activists in New York continue to target Gov. Cuomo: a group of them confronted Cuomo when he visited the New York state fair, and Cuomo was heckled by activists when he appeared at a recent panel on energy policy. Activists are dogging him for pretending to be anti-fracking when he ran for office and now reversing himself.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the latest technology used to extract natural gas from underground. It uses multidirectional drilling to tap sources of gas deep underground. Shale formations contain much natural gas locked up in the rocks; this is blasted out of the rock with water under high pressure. To make the water more slippery and thus less subject to friction, various poisonous chemicals are mixed with the water. As the gas is extracted from the well, much of this polluted water is then returned to the surface.
There are many dangers to this practice. Much of the polluted water is left underground, where it may leak into groundwater nearer the surface, water used for drinking, bathing, etc. We don’t know exactly what chemicals are used, and federal laws protecting commercial secrecy make it impossible to find out, but it’s generally recognized they include benzene and other highly carcinogenic chemicals. This “flowback” also contains minerals picked up from underground, some of which are radioactive. It also contains radioactive tracers gas companies use to track their drilling. Even when returned safely to the surface, there’s a big question about what to do with the polluted water. It can’t be returned to the regular water system, since the chemicals it’s infused with are highly toxic and difficult to separate from the water. This isn’t just a problem for the future; already thousands of fracking wells have been drilled in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states, so it’s a pressing problem regardless of fracking’s future.
The solution that’s been taken up in some places is to inject the polluted water back underground into supposedly safe places deep underground and supposedly walled off from groundwater. But forcing water back underground in these injection wells also has problems; in Arkansas the result has been hundreds of small earthquakes. Even if these earthquakes don’t cause much damage on the surface, there’s the danger they may open up fissures that allow the polluted water to seep up to groundwater near the surface.
Another solution considered is to require gas companies to reuse the polluted water, to store it in large containers and then take it to other drilling sites. One problem with this is the sheer quantity: each well uses millions of gallons of water, so large containers would be necessary. Transporting those opens up the possibility of spills on the roadway or railway and poisoning workers assigned to do clean-up. This is complicated by the fact that gas companies will not reveal what chemicals are in the polluted water, and the bourgeois doctrine of commercial secrecy allows them to get away with this. Courts in Pennsylvania have ruled that people who have been sickened by fracking may be treated by doctors who have been informed by the gas companies what chemicals were used in the fracking; but the doctors are strictly forbidden from telling anyone else, including the patients, what those chemicals are. This shows the insanity of capitalism, which not only allows, but insists on, people not being informed about chemicals that are poisoning them.
Plus, there’s the issue of taking millions of gallons of fresh, drinkable water and infusing it with chemicals, making it impossible to use again without expensive chemical processes (which won’t be done). This is criminal in a time of increasing droughts and the ever increasing cost of providing safe drinking water to people as the water table is depleted. One would think that the criminals involved would be jailed, but the oil and gas industry is specifically exempted from the federal Clean Water Act. Since the federal EPA cannot act, in Pennsylvania it’s asked the state EPA to step in and test areas around fracking wells for radioactive minerals in the water. So the federal and state EPAs bounce the ball of responsibility back and forth. Meanwhile local water treatment plants usually can’t test for radioactivity themselves, and even if they do, they don’t have the means to separate radioactive minerals from the water.
Another problem is the seepage of natural gas. Fracking causes fissures in the rock and allows natural gas to seep up into groundwater. Gas companies say this can’t happen because groundwater is only a few hundred feet down, while the wells are many thousands of feet deep and separated from groundwater by walls of rock. But experience tells otherwise. Various academic studies (by Cornell U., Duke U., Colorado School of Public Health) have shown a definite increase in natural gas around areas of fracking, both in the water and the air. There are many reports of animals and humans being sickened in the area. But here again, gas companies’ pollution of the air is completely legal because the oil and gas industry is exempted from the Clean Air Act. The federal EPA did a study of some of the health dangers from fracking in 2004, but the results of this study were censored when it was released, so the exact health dangers remain unknown. (Ian Urbina, “Pressure Limits Efforts to Police Drilling for Gas”, New York Times, 3/3/2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/us/04gas.html?pagewanted=all)
Aside from the immediate danger of making people and animals sick, natural gas (mainly methane) is a serious addition to the problem of global warming. Methane is actually a much worse global-warming gas than carbon dioxide. Aside from seepage through the ground, there’s a big loss of natural gas through the wellbore and through cracks in pipes. These are problems with any traditional gas wells and pipelines, but the problem is intensified with fracking. Fracking also damages the integrity of other pipelines in the area as it cracks the rock. Another problem is the possibility of a blowout, which actually happens quite often, and when it does gas, oil, polluted water, etc. are spewed across the surrounding area.
There are many other problems with the development of fracking. Many of them involve the economic development. The gas industry brags about bringing development to rural areas, and some property owners do profit financially. But it also brings a lot of headaches: hordes of gasfield workers move into an area that doesn’t have facilities to take care of them. The workers end up living in motels, trailers, RVs, etc. for months at a time. Narrow country roads are now jammed with heavy machinery and tanker trucks that tear up the roads. These are problems that could be dealt with, given a certain amount of economic planning and forcing the gas companies to pay for development. But that doesn’t happen; local communities, and the people who live there, are forced to pay for everything.
The bourgeoisie like to make a fuss about the need for “energy independence.” This is one of their arguments for busting shale and extracting natural gas -- it’s a domestic source of energy and so presumably helps reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But the only ones acquiring “independence” are the energy companies that sell their product around the world. Taxpayers and working people in the U.S. end up paying the bill for any problems while the oil and gas companies make billions in profits.
Energy companies have been running a national ad campaign to convince people to support gas drilling. One of the lies they promote is that there’s nothing new to fracking, that gas drilling has been going on for decades. But actually there have been problems with gas wells for decades; these are just ignored by the ad campaign. And in fact the technology of fracking is new. Fracking involves very long, deep drilling, going in different directions and using pressurized, chemically-laden water to break apart shale. The technology for this “horizontal slickwater fracturing” has been developed only in the last 15 years. It’s used not only for gas extraction but also for oil; it’s made possible a new oil boom in North Dakota and Texas, and as oil is depleted from the North Slope in Alaska, there’s talk of using it there too to extract harder to get oil. Oil and gas companies try to say the new technology has less environmental impact than the old technology, because there’s less surface disruption from drilling wells: since each well can be drilled in any direction for long distances, fewer wells need to be drilled. This is true, but the dangers from fracking also occur at long distances in any direction.
The industry ad campaign was designed by the PR
company Hill and Knowlton. This is the same firm that used to promote
smoking in the 1950s and 60s and denied that tobacco use had any links
to cancer. The gas industry is using experienced liars to promote
fracking. But its effect is limited; while many national and statewide
politicians have been won over, many local environmental groups are
drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Not here.”
To try and disarm opposition, the bourgeois politicians in support of fracking are promising tight regulation to ensure safe drinking water. Gov. Cuomo has promised that New York will have “the tightest regulation of any state in the country”, and New York City mayor Bloomberg has called for a “tightly regulated” fracking industry. Bill Richardson, former Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration, has also come to Cuomo’s support. At a panel on energy sponsored by the New York state Democratic Party, Richardson said he was all for “strong regulation” but insisted “Natural gas is the future. It is here.” (New York Post, August 24)
In the first place, Cuomo promises that the watershed for New York City will be protected and no fracking allowed there. But if it’s important to protect the water of New York City, why isn’t it equally important to protect the water of Albany, Syracuse, Binghamton, etc.?
Further, environmental activists have plenty of experience with “tight regulation” and see its results. Look at the BP oil spill, for example. Look at the Enbridge oil pipeline spill in Michigan. Look at the hundreds of accidents and safety problems at nuclear power plants. Even Cuomo’s investigation of fracking was a joke, like Obama’s moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Give it a little time, let the opposition die down, then go back to business as usual, the government in bed with the corporate polluters.
Regulatory capture is a phenomenon of capitalist government. Look at the Wall Street meltdown in 2007-08. There were numerous government agencies in charge of watching Wall Street, but they all “missed” the danger signs until it was all over. Why? They were too busy partying with the people and institutions they were supposed to watch. Similarly with coal companies and the OSHA regulators who are supposed to be watching out for coal miners’ safety. The corporations bribe the regulators, and there’s regular interchange of personnel as the government regulators quit their job and get hired by the corporations, and vice versa.
Even politicians not directly bribed by the corporations still buy into the general bourgeois philosophy of market fundamentalism. The main thing is to promote freedom for the corporations to make as much money as possible, especially the energy monopolies. The politicians shy away from environmental regulation as much as possible just as they shy away from economic planning. Oil and gas companies are exempted from air and water regulation, and industrial practices are protected by commercial secrecy. Naked capitalist ideology is promoted especially by Republican Party politicians who stridently promote “Drill, baby, drill!” and oppose any government regulation. So they love to hate Obama because he wouldn’t approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada without first having an environmental impact study. But the Democrats’ approach isn’t that different: first they “study” and “investigate”, then they hold some hearings, and then it’s “Drill, baby, drill.”
Environmental activists who are seriously concerned about the dangers of fracking are sick of this charade. So the main slogan at the August 27 demonstration was “Ban fracking now.” They didn’t call for tighter regulation, but for a complete ban. This puts these activists on a collision course not only with the corporate polluters but with politicians, including Democrats like Cuomo, who act as corporate front-men.
The energy monopolies are not going to stop their push for fracking. Besides New York, they are pushing for gas extraction from the entire Delaware River basin, the border area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The government commission in charge of the river basin has ordered a “review” and a “study” to see if this is feasible; no doubt they will follow the same path as Gov. Cuomo, at first feigning interest in scientific evidence and then capitulating to the rich corporations. Gas companies are also signing leases all over northeastern Ohio, and there’s significant activity in Colorado.
The energy monopolies’ push for fracking isn’t due to any concern for “American energy independence” or the needs of the masses, but because the energy companies are bent on maintaining their profits without bothering with a shift to alternative, renewable energy sources. Because of their powerful position within the bourgeoisie, they’re able to run roughshod over others, using whatever technology is easiest for them, and to hell with its impact on the environment. They’ve already paid for mineral rights in many areas, and they aren’t about to back off from fracking. Activists who are seriously concerned about clean water and air are thus going to be forced into a confrontation. In this confrontation activists should look to the working class for support.
The working class is the only force that can act as a consistent counterweight to the corporations and their government. Corporate capture of regulatory agencies can only be countered by mobilizing the working masses to demand more transparency and to get workers involved in the enforcement of regulation. This doesn’t mean just having a few trade union leaders sign off on things, to avoid rocking the boat and continue getting their fat paychecks. It means activists going directly to the masses, not through the sold-out politicians and union leaders, and mobilizing them for actions.
Up to now over 100 municipalities in New York,
including the city of Binghamton, have passed resolutions against
fracking, and recently Vermont became the first state to ban fracking.
Local resolutions are the result of struggle by local activists who
should be applauded for their work. On the other hand, many of these
resolutions are more like declarations of intent rather than outright
prohibitions, and many are based on legalistic arguments about the
rights of corporations, etc. Their actual legal status will be up in
the air if the state of New York sanctions fracking, since state law
overrules local ordinances. So local resolutions don’t end the
struggle; they intensify the need for activists to expand their
outreach to workers and prepare militant actions.
Environmentalist groups that are serious about clean
water and air will be forced into a clash with the energy monopolies.
Serious activists welcome this fight, because they’re sick of being
controlled by the sold-out politicians compromised by ties to corporate
polluters. If they’re able to gain the support of wide masses of the
working people and to develop a program of standing up to the
capitalists, activists have a chance of winning the battle against
fracking and participating in the general movement of class struggle. <>
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