To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
August 16, 2016
RE: the history of fracking, from the 1870s to today

Fracking: 150 years of poisoning the land

By Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

Notes on the book Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider's Stand Against the World's Most Powerful Industry, by Andrew Nikiforuk. David Suzuki Institute, Greystone Books, 2015.

This book concentrates on the struggles of Jessica Ernst, a Canadian woman who used to have a company for oil permitting in Alberta. She would make deals with Native tribes and farmers to allow oil companies to drill on their land. She also would advise oil companies how to obtain such permits. But Ernst had a hang-up: she thought the best way for companies to proceed was to tell the truth. She advised companies to be completely honest in negotiations and to keep their word about everything. This eventually landed her in trouble with the companies trying to pull the wool over the eyes of local landowners. Eventually Ernst turned completely against the oil companies and filed a giant lawsuit against them and the government of Alberta for lying to landowners and not enforcing existing laws against fraud and pollution. Since filing the lawsuit Ernst's business has completely dried up, and she now lives on her savings.

But before detailing the story of Jessica Ernst, the author gives a history of fracking in the oil and gas industry. I found this particularly interesting, as when I was petitioning to ban fracking in Michigan I met a number of people who argued against me by saying, "Fracking's been around for 60 years." Their thinking was, if it's been around that long, it must be safe. To this I usually gave the reply, "No, this is a new method, horizontal slick-water drilling, and it's quite new. It's different from old methods of drilling vertical wells."

Nikiforuk's approach is quite different. Instead of giving the industry a pass on previous methods, his answer is: "Fracking's been around, not just for 60, but for 150 years; and it's ALWAYS been dangerous." By "fracking" he means the artificial opening up of seams of rock to extract more oil and gas, and he says this practice began back in the 1870s, when the original oil wells in Pennsylvania began to dry up. Oil drillers found that by setting off explosions underground they could fracture the rock and extract more oil from old wells. Early frackers used gunpowder, bombs and torpedoes left over from the Civil War. Later they moved to nitroglycerine, a more effective explosive, but also one likely to go off accidentally and kill the frackers themselves. Fracking with explosives continued into the 20th century until it was replaced by hydraulic fracking.

From the beginning there were geologists who warned against fracking, that it might lead to leaks of gas and oil into the water table and surface streams. But these warnings were ignored, as the oil and gas industry was not only tolerated but promoted by government. Hydraulic fracking, begun in the 1930s, was applied extensively in the U.S. after World War II. A new company, HydraFrac, was formed that patented a new method of using pressurized water, "proppants" like sand, and chemicals to make the water slick. The chemicals used are a trade secret protected by the government, but usually contain various petrochemicals and acids. HydraFrac licensed the notorious company Halliburton to apply this method on a large scale. The main difference between this early hydraulic fracking and that of today is that in those days the amount of materials used -- water, sand, and chemicals -- and the amount of pressure applied was much smaller than today. Where frack wells used tens of thousands of gallons of water in those days, today they use millions.

Nikiforuk notes that these early frackers were not entirely successful. Gas seams didn't always split in exactly the right way, and wells often did not yield additional oil and gas. Gas was likely to migrate sideways or up and to escape into ground water or the atmosphere. Government supported efforts to find more efficient ways to frack wells. One of the most notorious was the experiment with underground nuclear explosions. Government scientists figured that using atomic bombs would be more effective than dynamite, so they set off nuclear explosions underground to see how much oil and gas they could obtain. They did obtain some, but eventually decided that this method was not workable, as it made the petrochemicals radioactive. Apparently they had never thought of that before.

Nikiforuk's history shows that fracking has always been dangerous. He says fracking's link to earthquakes was clearly established by 1978, when a series of quakes shook Oklahoma after a number of new fracking projects were carried out there. Oklahoma earthquakes and their tie to fracking have finally been admitted by some federal and state agencies, but this is nearly 40 years later.

Federal government studies opened up a new industry by funding experiments with fracking old coal mines. Coal is notoriously laced with methane (natural gas), which presents a serious danger to coal miners. Government scientists had the brilliant idea of turning this negative into a positive by drilling into old coal mines, fracking them and extracting useful natural gas. Trouble is, coal seams travel long distances and fracture in hard-to-predict ways, so the result was often the release of methane into the atmosphere or ground water.

Another lesson of Nikiforuk's history is how the oil and gas industry has been subsidized by the government. Right-wing commentators who complain about subsidies for the development of non-carbon energy sources (wind, solar, etc.) cover over this fact about oil and gas. Hydraulic fracking is practically a child of the federal government, as it sponsored experiments and special meetings and helped establish scientific journals to discuss methods of fracking and gave special tax breaks to companies that practiced fracking.

Fracking is not new, and neither is the opposition to it. Ranchers and landowners in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming have been complaining for decades about the pollution and wasteful use of their groundwater. Precious aquifers are dried up by frackers who use the water to frack wells, then bury the "produced water" laced with chemicals in deep injection wells. Even if it never migrates to the surface, polluting surface water, the "produced water" is completely gone, no longer useful for anything. Meanwhile old wells are leaking methane into the atmosphere, and the pockets created by empty aquifers produce earthquakes.

Nikiforuk's book shows the shortsighted way the government helped industry develop. Future generations face an environment riddled with thousands of leaky wells which government scientists now admit cannot be sealed, even with cement. These wells will be poisoning the land long after the companies are gone and the fossil fuel economy ended. Cleaning up the mess left by the oil and gas industry will take a very long time. <>

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Posted on August 19, 2016.