Natural gas has often been touted as the “clean” fossil fuel because burning it releases less CO2 than burning oil or coal.
Unfortunately, in the United States, most natural gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process that’s anything but clean.
Fracking involves injecting huge amounts of fluid containing water, chemicals and sand into the ground. This fluid cracks underground rock and allows gas that would otherwise be impossible to access to flow into the well.
Fracking techniques have been pioneered and refined in the Barnett Shale, a rock formation that underlies 5,000 square miles in Texas, including the city of Fort Worth. It’s one of the most active natural gas fields in the United States. Drilling proponents argue that the gas industry stimulates the Texas economy, but it does so at the expense of the long-term safety and security of Texas citizens.
Fracking fluid contains known toxins, which can contaminate local groundwater. The process can also cause natural gas itself to seep into the groundwater. Several households near drilling sites in Pennsylvania have found that they can light their tapwater on fire. Methane that enters homes through water pipes can build up indoors, making the air unsafe to breathe and can even cause explosions. And according to Jean-Philipe Nicot, a geological engineer at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, if drilling in North Texas expands, the massive amount of water used in hydrofracking will start to compete with the water needed for drinking and farming in the drought-prone Barnett Shale region.
Hydrofracking can also cause air pollution. After residents of Dish, Texas, started complaining of headaches and blackouts and reported neurological defects and blindness in horses, the town hired a private environmental consultant who found that the town’s air contained large amounts of carcinogens and neurotoxins, likely originating from the 11 nearby natural gas compression stations.
Communities have the right to refuse hydrofracking or to strictly control it. Last May, the town of Flower Mound, under citizen pressure, suspended all new gas well permits. But the opportunity to sign potentially lucrative contracts with drilling companies has made many towns and landowners ignore fracking’s dangerous track record. Even UT is getting a cut: The Jackson School of Geosciences is funded in part by royalty payments for roughly a thousand oil and gas wells just north of the Barnett Shale. This conflict of interest could taint further research into the environmental and health effects of hydrofracking in Texas. And people already lack accurate information. Neither federal nor Texas law requires companies to reveal the exact chemicals they use in any given fracking fluid, and companies guard the ingredients as “trade secrets.”
Last week, members of U.S. Congress reintroduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act. This bill would close a loophole that exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require companies to reveal the chemicals in their fracking fluids. If it passes, this bill will provide a minimum level of accountability for gas drillers.
The Texas Senate, unfortunately, is moving in the other direction. If Texas SB 875 passes, it will exempt state permit holders, including natural gas drillers, from trespassing and nuisance laws as long as they are in compliance with their permits. This bill would prevent citizens from suing gas companies for spewing pollutants into the air, into the groundwater and onto their properties. It protects industry at the expense of citizens’ rights and should be blocked.
It’s easy to blame corporations for the damage caused by hydrofracking, but we also need to recognize our own role in the industry. Corporations use such destructive drilling methods because the demand for natural gas is so high. We use it to heat our homes, we buy food that was produced with natural-gas-derived fertilizer, and we burn it for electricity. We have the right to demand that corporations stop drilling for gas in our backyards. We don’t have the right to demand gas (or oil or coal) that was extracted from somebody else’s.
There is no clean fossil fuel. And the recent disaster in Japan shows that nuclear power is not a safe alternative. We need to aggressively pursue renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Austin residents can join Austin Energy’s Green Choice program, which allows homeowners to buy energy from 100-percent renewable sources.
But as any good centrist politician will tell you, renewable sources alone may not satiate our planet’s growing hunger for energy, which is why, if we want to continue to live safely and sanely on this planet, we have to dramatically reduce the amount of energy we use. Fossil fuels have bought us convenience and material wealth. But it’s not worth selling our air and our drinking water to maintain current levels of consumption.