Fracking in the United States
We have reached a point in time where the fundamental backbone of our entire society is fossil fuels. They are the fuel of our electricity, methods of transportation, and the most revolutionizing material yet: plastic. However, we as humans often forget that this miracle fuel is a finite resource and that we are perpetually diminishing it. Due to this, we are constantly researching and developing new methods for extraction. Our newest method of accessing untapped reservoirs of fossil fuels is Hydraulic Fracturing, commonly known as fracking. Fracking is a method of further extracting natural gasses from targeted rock layers deep within the ground. It involves a process of drilling down vertically then horizontally, and pumping a mixture of water, proppants (solid material designed to keep an induced hydraulic fracture open) and assorted chemicals deep into the ground at high pressures. These high pressures cause the rock to fracture, releasing the hydrocarbons stored within (Willow & Wylie 2014).
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Fracking has set off alarms within several different paradigms as it is inherently a destructive process that has a large potential to negatively impact the immediate environment, as well as communities that are situated near such operations. This is largely important since fracking operations have grown exponentially since the mid-1990s, when technologic advances and increases in the price of natural gas made the technique economically viable. Fracking is currently taking place in eleven states, and an additional 8 States are either considering or preparing for drilling using this method. Vermont has permanently banned fracking, and New York and North Carolina have instituted temporary bans. (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins & Sattler 2013) In this initial section I will be elaborating on the impacts of fracking on the environment (water and soil contamination, air pollution) as well as how fracking has a detrimental impact on human health.
Fracking has raised concerns regarding the way it may damage underground water supplies. Since the process involves pumping up to millions of gallons of the mixture into the ground, the potential for water contamination is very high. There are already a host of documented instances in which nearby groundwater has been contaminated by fracking activities, requiring residents with private wells to obtain outside sources of water for drinking and everyday use.
Additionally, the air is significantly impacted by fracking operations. The large fleets of diesel trucks (typically 1,000 to 2,000 per well) that are required to support the fracking process significantly increase ground level ozone and particulate matter, as well as oxides of Nitrogen which further drives the enhanced greenhouse effect. (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins & Sattler 2013)
Fracking also creates the right circumstances for soil contamination, as drilling sludge (a mixture of drilling mud, rock segments containing hydrocarbons, heavy metals and radioactive materials) is what is being brought to the surface during the drilling phase. Further waste fluids that make their way to the surface must be very carefully disposed of due to their toxicity and potential to contaminate the soil and air. Additionally, some of these waste fluids need additional precaution because they are radioactive (due to the heavy metals or minerals in the drilling sludge). However, the illicit dumping of these materials is suspected to occur on a wide scale. Currently, no state has adequate regulations on drilling, particularly the disposal of the polluted water (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins & Sattler 2013).
Although drilling companies are expected to submit water management plans to the appropriate state agencies that oversee environmental protection, often there is little state oversight. This gives these companies room to abuse this, as they are expected to self-report violations which they do not do voluntarily. An example of this can be seen in Pennsylvania, as taxpayers paid to plug 259 of the 8600 abandoned wells in 2009 alone due to leaking natural gas, oil, and acid mine drainage penetrating into the groundwater, surface water, and air. Additionally, several drilling companies have been charged with illegal water withdrawals and others have been found to be operating without permits. The state does not even have an extensive underground water monitoring system in place, and no comprehensive data exist on spills. Not only is there no regulatory framework to monitor fracking activities that have the potential to greatly harm the environment, drilling companies are not legally required to state what chemical compounds they are utilizing in their process. This has made it even more difficult to fully and specifically map out the extent of impacts that fracking has produced. (Finkel & Law 2011)
Not only does fracking have serious environmental consequences, it is also the root cause of several health issues in individuals that are situated near to fracking operations. For example, a study based on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection assessed the chemicals used in fracturing and found that 73% of the products had between 6 and 14 different adverse health effects including skin, eye, and sensory organ damage; respiratory distress including asthma; gastrointestinal and liver disease; brain and nervous system harms; cancers; and negative reproductive effects. (Finkel & Law 2011) Some of these negative health effects were found immediately after initial exposure to the chemicals, while other negative health effects appeared over the span of months or years. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system have the potential to alter developmental pathways, appearing decades after exposure or even across generations by altering epigenetic pathways. Both fracking fluid and flowback fluids contain candidate endocrine disruptors, but due to the lack of disclosure by the drilling companies of the individual chemicals used in these fluids (and their unique Chemical Abstracts Service registry numbers), it is difficult to truly assess their potential adverse effects and thus the overall cumulative exposure impact remains unknown. (Finkel & Law 2011)
The most direct way for an individual situated close to a fracking operation to become exposed to those dangerous chemicals is through their water supply. This is because people obtain their drinking water from either surface water, which includes rivers and reservoirs, or groundwater aquifers, accessed by public or private wells. An example of a primary health hazard caused by fracking is methane migration from active drilling sites to aquifers. In Pennsylvania, the average methane level was 17 times higher in private drinking-water wells within one kilometer, or about 3,280 feet, of active drilling sites, compared with those in nondrilling areas. These high levels of methane in drinking-water supplies can create a risk of explosions and asphyxiation hazards for entire households. (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins & Sattler 2013)
Despite the evidence of health risks related to fracking, communities and health care providers have had limited access to information about the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, as well as barriers placed on their ability to inform and share information about chemical exposures. An example of this can be seen through the Pennsylvania’s Act 13 set in 2012, which states that the drilling companies are not required to share information about the components or concentration of chemicals if these are deemed proprietary trade secrets. Additionally, it is also required that health professionals submit a written request for information on proprietary solutions used in fracking and sign a “confidentiality agreement” identifying that the information is needed to diagnose or treat an individual. These policies delay nurses’ and other health care providers’ ability to quickly assess and treat the public or the fracking workforce for potentially hazardous exposures. Furthermore, the Pennsylvania law states that health care professionals are not permitted to share exposure information, which hinders the development of evidence-based assessment and treatment related to the negative health effects of these chemicals. (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins & Sattler 2013)
Now that the evident risks that fracking poses to the environment and people’s health have been stated, this section suggests what action may be taken through policy to change the current situation in the United States. Through the Theory of Change, I have devised two alternative pathways for what is needed to stop and mitigate the effects of fracking in the United States:
The first step towards enacting this Theory of Change would be the removal of the vast presence and influence of the fossil fuel industry from our government and legislative branches. This can be seen during the George W. Bush administration, as a large amount of controversy arose over Vise President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force that recommended energy policy goals for the Bush administration. The fossil fuel industry was very influential on the task force, as documents show that executives from both ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil participated on the task force. Their influence was so large that a recommendation made by the Energy Task Force suggesting Congress exempt hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act was put into place by the National Energy Policy Act of 2005. This can also be seen through the introduction of proposed legislation in both the House (H.R. 2766) and Senate (S. 1215) in 2009, when the two identical bills were introduced. The Fractured Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act sought to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to allow EPA power to regulate hydraulic fracturing and to require disclosure of fracking chemicals. Individuals who opposed the bills argued that enough detail of chemicals is already disclosed in the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Environmental and Public Works. However, the matter remained unaddressed when the congressional session expired without action on the bills. (Rahm, 2011) It is still unclear why the FRAC Act was not passed, but there have been several (albeit failed) attempts to reintroduce the bills.
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Once this influence has been eliminated from our government, the next step would be immediately shutting down all current fracking operations as well as mitigating the environmental and negative health impacts that have occurred. In order to mitigate these impacts, a large widescale investigation needs to occur. This investigation would be divided into an environmental section and a public health section. Additionally, the government would allocate the necessary funds for the investigation, as well as the jurisdiction to investigate (to ensure that all companies must tell the truth).
The environmental investigation would initially target all companies involved in ongoing fracking operations and find out what specific chemical each company is using in their hydrofracking mixture. Once the environmental impacts of each specific chemical have been studied in a lab, each individual operating site, and the surrounding area, would need to be visited to obtain precise data of any environmental degradation. When this is done, a large task force will be created and mobilized to mitigate the effects of the environmental degradation. Since a large amount of the environmental degradation caused by fracking is due to inadequate waste disposal, the government would provide the necessary funds and tools to safely and effectively dispose of contaminated areas. The task force would also begin rehabilitating any damaged ecosystems around any affected operating sites. To clean up areas with polluted groundwater, the task force would need to seal off the contaminated areas by constructing a barrier that would isolate that water from the rest of the aquifer. Bioremediation could also be used, as microorganisms that are engineered to eat the specific pollutants are injected into the contaminated area. To address the contaminated soil, fresh organic matter and key nutrients should be placed upon the contaminated area. The efficiency of the drainage system of the contaminated are should also be improved so the soil can remove the pollutants more easily. Lastly, plants that are specifically tailored to clean the soil should be brought in and planted. Sunflowers will draw toxins out of the soil with their roots and have been used for years as natural detoxifiers. Since the air pollution produced by fracking cannot be directly cleaned up, greater strategies should be employed by the general populace to reduce the overall air pollution within the United States.
The health investigation would take the data of all the chemicals used by the fracking companies and test the range of negative health effects for each chemical in multiple labs. Once the results are in, a widescale health campaign will be launched in communities situated near fracking operations. This campaign will be derived of several sections. One section would be dedicated to informing the public on the dangerous health effects that result from fracking, as the people need to be able to identify if they are experiencing any symptoms. The government would also supply the affected population with the methods to screen for any dangerous chemicals that cause immediate health effects, such as the butane content in the drinking water supply. Another section would be dedicated to treating any individuals who are experiencing immediate negative health effects due to fracking. This could be done either through the recruitment of a team of doctors that would travel from community to community, or further strengthening the already established network of healthcare. Additionally, the government would incentivize the affected populace by having the companies responsible for large negative environmental impacts pay for their medical bills. This would further strengthen the sentiment that those who benefited from fracking will be accountable for their actions. Another section of the campaign would be a long-term study on the communities’ health conducted on different affected populations. This would require its own task force of medical scientists (in labs and in the field) to meticulously study some of the longer-term negative health effects caused by fracking. Although these effects would be harder to directly cure, the allocation of grants for additional research would lead to a deeper understanding of those effects and could even lead to a large breakthrough in the treatment of those diseases.
Concurrent to the environmental and public health investigations, the government would begin the complete eradication of fracking operations. Since Fracking occurs twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, simply stopping all operations would have a large impact. In order to this, the government would create, fund and mobilize a large force of construction workers that would be trained in dismantling fracking operations whilst mitigating the environmental impacts of doing so. This force would also be trained to safely dispose of the remaining toxic mixture fluid, as well as any components (such as tubing or pipeline) of the fracking operation that have been contaminated. As this force makes its way around the country, the thousands of people within the fracking workforce would need to be compensated for their abrupt unemployment.
The next stage is arguably the most important, as eliminating fracking as a method of resource extraction would require replacing natural gas as a resource altogether with a safer, cleaner alternative: Hydrogen. However, if Hydrogen is to be deemed sustainable and environmentally friendly it must have renewable starting materials. Hydrogen can already be produced biologically from renewable resources such as biomass, although typically only 15% of the energy available can be recovered as hydrogen. To make biological hydrogen recovery feasible, methods must be found to harness the remaining 85% of the energy. It is estimated that hydrogen production from wastewater has the greatest potential for economical near-term production of hydrogen from renewable resources—but only if hydrogen conversion efficiency could be increased to 60–80%. However, substantial technical barriers must be overcome to achieve such efficiency. (Logan, 2004) Therefore, if the government gave out grants to labs all around the country to develop a way to harness an adequate percentage of the remaining energy, hydrogen would vastly revolutionize the fuel industry.
The Theory of Change I have presented is vastly a hypothetical one, as the United States would never give up its self-destructive search for more fossil fuels because it results in profits (short term profits prioritized more than long term serious environmental degradation and health effects). I believe that within the current situation, the precautionary principle would be the most effective method in helping individuals who have had negative health effects because of being situated near an ongoing fracking operation. The concept places the burden of proving that an activity is safe for human health or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, on the entity initiating the activity. It is also inherent in the principle that preventive action should be taken in the face of uncertainty, the burden of proof should be shifted to the proponents of an activity, alternatives to possibly harmful actions need to be explored, and there should be increased public participation in decision-making. (Finkel & Law 2011) Additionally, it emphasizes the need for nurses to be well versed in the health risks connected to fossil fuel energy and supports their engagement in patient and community education as well as in policy and advocacy work. (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins & Sattler 2013)
- Willow, Anna J., and Sara Wylie. “Politics, Ecology, and the New Anthropology of Energy: Exploring the Emerging Frontiers of Hydraulic Fracking.” Journal of Political Ecology 21, no. 1 (December 1, 2014): 222. https://doi.org/10.2458/v21i1.21134.
- Finkel, Madelon L., and Adam Law. “The Rush to Drill for Natural Gas: A Public Health Cautionary Tale.” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 5 (May 2011): 784–85. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2010.300089.
- McDermott-Levy, Ruth, Nina Kaktins, and Barbara Sattler. “Fracking, the Environment, and Health.” AJN The American Journal of Nursing 113, no. 6 (June 2013): 45. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NAJ.0000431272.83277.f4.
- Rahm, Dianne. “Regulating Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale Gas Plays: The Case of Texas.” Energy Policy 39, no. 5 (May 2011): 2974–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2011.03.009.
- Logan, Bruce E. “Extracting Electricity from Hydrogen,” science & technology 38, no. 9 (2004): 160A-167A.
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