Saturday December 8th – 10am: Mike Tidwell, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), greeted a roomful of concerned citizens at the University of Baltimore. The event they were attending was called Drilling Down: A Conference on Fracking Risks and Action in Maryland. In the school’s Langsdale Auditorium, residents from all over Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania participated for a full day of education on what's at stake with the introduction of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for the extraction of natural gas to the state of Maryland.
The life cycle of hydraulic fracturing
Hydraulic fracturing begins with gas companies leasing land from homeowners, so they can gain access to natural gas trapped in underground rock formations. Next, the land is cleared of vegetation in order to construct roads for the transport of equipment and tankers, possible pipelines, well sites, and wastewater pools. Then materials must be gathered. The list of resources includes millions of gallons of water, silica sand, and a cocktail of chemicals, many of which are undisclosed. Once everything is set in place, the actual process of fracking begins; drilling of the well, placement of pipes, injection of water, sand, and chemical mixtures into the ground. When the concoction is blasted through the earth, the rock deep underground is fractured, allowing natural gas to be released. On the surface, flowback water, gas, and “produced water” emerge.
After the gas becomes available, it must be gathered, purified and compressed for market placement. The tainted water used in the process must also be collected, treated for re-use, or properly disposed of, which is where wastewater pools and underground injection wells come into play. As soon as the well is no longer needed the process for plugging it up begins. This procedure — conducted to prevent further environmental damage — involves blocking the well with cement, removing unnecessary structures, and restoring the ecosystem via replanting.
So, why are gas companies looking to introduce this process to Maryland? Western Maryland, along with the majority of W. Virginia and parts of Virginia, is situated above the largest onshore natural gas reserve of the United States – the Marcellus Shale Formation. Other states located above the cache are New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Dr. Catherine Thomasson, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), started off the discussion in Baltimore with some unsettling statistics on fracking. According to her research, natural gas emissions are partially responsible for last year’s 3% rise of global carbon pollution, and have been found to be worse than those of coal. Fracking also presents a higher gas leakage rate, more than 2.5%, than conventional extraction methods. Another unnerving reality about fracking is the amount of water removed from the global supply. Roughly 6 million gallons of water are needed for the process, which is transported by about 1,660 diesel-fueled tanker trucks. Caustic chemicals mixed with the water create an incredible amount of toxic liquid, thereby making the water impossible to treat and re-use for drinking. These substances include known human carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, and biocides.
Not surprisingly, 71% of Marylanders want studies conducted to determine how safe hydraulic fracturing is, and 81% believe that the industry should be required to pay for them.
In a panel discussion moderated by Mr. Tidwell, four speakers offered their thoughts and experiences relating to fracking. First, Doug Shields, former Pittsburgh city councilor who led his city’s successful effort to pass protections against the process, spoke about how he was able to ban fracking within his community. Shields was determined to let the industry know that the local populations which are directly affected by the hazardous practice should have the final say in whether fracking is allowed to impact their livelihoods.
Western Maryland landowner Dana Shimrock shared a personal story of her involvement with the gas companies. Back in 2006, Dana and her husband reluctantly signed a lease to allow 60 acres of their land to be accessed by the industry. She claimed that due to her conversations with a representative, her impression of process was different than what it actually is. She was told the footprint would only be about 1 acre, when in reality it’s generally 6-10 acres. The couple eventually caved to pressure from their farming neighbors, who had all signed leases. Dana now regrets her decision.
In addition to her own story, Dana told the tale of an old neighbor of hers in Addison, Pa who unexpectedly had to deal with toxic sludge pouring out of a well onto his front lawn. When he complained, the gas companies retorted, claiming he could not prove they had anything to do with it. Having owned the property for 35 years, the man had renovated a house built in 1907, planted trees, and farmed organically. After the incident, his property value decreased dramatically.
Suzanne Jacobson, a RN, BSN, emergency nurse at Frederick Memorial Hospital and founder of Recycled Cities, offered the audience her views as a healthcare professional. Suzanne expressed her disappointment with the lack of systematic health impact assessments available, and the lack of research done on long-term exposure to methane in drinking water. As part of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, she feels it is her duty to inform the public on the connection between environmental health and human health, by educating and advocating for healthier energy sources. In regard to the influx of heavy duty transport vehicles in small towns, Suzanne explains the “diesel emissions contribute to a higher level of local ozone, which is a respiratory irritant that can lead to asthma and other breathing issues.” She also mentioned that 75% of the 632 chemicals used in fracking affect the skin, eyes, gastrointestinal tract, and other body systems. Symptoms include rashes, trouble breathing, and loss of smell. Additionally, the “consistent noise pollution causes hearing loss on site.” Jacobson said small communities affected are completely unprepared to deal with the arrival of large teams of male workers, and have suffered a rise in binge drinking, drug use and STDs.
Environmental author and blogger Joe Romm spoke on what he saw as a Ponzi scheme in hydraulic fracturing. He started by tackling the catchphrase of the industry — that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” — instead Romm countered that it is a “bridge to nowhere.” He went on to say that the process is destroying the resources our children depend on, calling them victims of a Ponzi scheme, and that “adults who care about kids must stop this insanity.” He also called attention to the U.S. Geological Survey’s recent study that linked the rise of quakes in the mid-continent to industry activity. In closing, Joe indicated that natural gas is “a fuel our children and grandchildren cannot run the economy on – it’s a completely unsustainable system.”
Following the panel discussion and Q&A session, Maryland Delegate Heather Mizeur presented her keynote address. In her speech, she stressed the fact that any movement towards fracking would no doubt affect the entire state, but our neighbors in the western region would be dealing with it up close and personally. Mizeur highlighted Maryland as a leader, commending the state on taking a precautionary approach to fracking, rather than a reactionary one, like many other states. Although, her biggest concern remains in the funding of studies necessary to determine safety.
In the afternoon, attendees chose amongst three breakout sessions under the titles of Fracking Moratorium Now: How to Make it Happen, Debunking Fracking Myths, and Fracking’s Cost to Our Environment and Clean Energy Alternatives.
The first session included a panel comprised of Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health for PSR, Joelle Novey, Director of Interfaith Power & Light (MD, DC, NoVA), State Senator Jamie Raskin (D-20), and moderator Megan Jenny of CCAN. Barbara began the conversation by reminding the audience that the issue of fracking is an environmental, health, and moral concern. The most powerful poignant statement of her speech was “You can’t be any healthier than your environment.” Working on a different part of the spectrum, Joelle Novey is helping religious leaders to reach out to their congregations, particularly African American faith groups, in order to help diversify the movement.
The second session’s panel was comprised of Paul Roberts, a Western Maryland small business owner and founder of Citizen Shale, Dr. Pouné Saberi, Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility, Diana Dascalu-Joffe, Senior General Council of CCAN, and moderator Erik DuMont, Maryland State Director of CCAN. Paul Roberts started off by telling the story of how the gas industry wanted to send tanker trucks down the small road that passes by his winery. He claimed that when he asked the representative who came to visit about the chemicals used in the fracking process, the man stated, “They’ll melt rocks.” Turning towards Wall St. projections, Paul asserted it would take development of 35,000-40,000 wells a year to meet their standards, and in Pennsylvania about every 5th tree would have to be cut down to make way for the construction of sites. Overall, consumption rate of natural gas in the U.S. would deplete the Marcellus Shale in roughly 6 ½ years time. Paul ended his talk with this question – “The issue isn’t about new jobs, it’s about net jobs. What about the jobs you will destroy?”
Subsequent to Mr. Roberts was Dr. Pouné Saberi. The focus of her presentation was on the “cradle to grave” lifespan of the fracking method, and how humans are affected by it. She emphasized the equation of "Hazard + Exposure = Health Risk", pointing out that smog created by ozone from diesel-engine trucks is a cause of increased blood pressure. She also touched on life and social stressors, such as the idea of creating jobs around U.S. natural gas reserves is a patriotic duty. Diana Dascalu-Joffe worked on debunking statements, such as “The natural gas industry is heavily regulated at the federal level,” by bringing up the Halliburton Loophole.
Guest speaker Lester Brown, an award-winning environmental visionary and author, and president of the Environmental Policy Institute launched into his speech by raising concern about food being the weak link in the system. With relentless population growth and people climbing up the food chain, a ton of pressure is being placed on our resources. Farmers are finding difficulty in expanding, mainly due to water constraints.
The production of grains across the globe is requiring aquifers to be over-pumped. Brown pointed out that production in countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Saudi Arabia is declining, and within another year or so they’ll have to put an end to it. Unfortunately, this generation of farmers is the first to face climate change. “There’s no norm to go back to,” he states, “we’re in constant flux and don’t know what to expect.” Addition of statistics suggests that for every 1 degree of a rise in temperature, grain yields will decrease by 10% and soy by 16%.
Lester affirms that “food security is not something we can deal with, if climate spirals out of control. The good news is that we’re seeing progress in cutting emissions. Closing the coal plants – that’s what we need to do and the Sierra Club is working on that.”
Within the social shift, there is shrinkage of auto fleets, and those being produced are increasing in their efficiency. Mr. Brown also accentuated the rebirth of the bicycle, mentioning nationwide bike share programs. Cities such as Chicago and NYC are some of the most recent to partake. Now in the early stages of what he calls the “Great Transition,” pressure must be put on others to follow suit.
Other prospects, like renewable energies, will play a major role in reversing the climate crisis. On the topic of wind power, Brown tells us that “it makes no difference how much you use today, it will still be there tomorrow,” unlike fossil fuels, which will only last so long before we’re forced to seek other alternatives.
In conclusion, the author offered positive solutions for the pressing issue of fueling our great nation, leaving many feeling inspired and energized to tackle the task. Some final words of wisdom reminded all of what is truly important and necessary for achieving our goal, and that is “we all have a stake in the future of civilization and we have a responsibility to become politically active. We can’t wait around for someone to come and save us – we have to do it.”