Not a Cough in a Carload

The next time you hear a proponent of fracking say something like, “Fracking has been done in Michigan for 50-60 years with no damage to the environment,” you should recognize that he is not trying explain things or inform you of the facts. He’s trying to baffle you with a gross misstatement of the facts.

Let’s suppose you’re talking to a guy who wants to purchase some land from you, near your house, to start a business. You would like to sell the land, but you’re worried about the possibility of an increase in traffic on your quiet street. You ask him about it.

He says, “Look, you’ve had several families living up the street from you for years. The kids with their bicycles and their buzzy little motor scooters have run vehicles up and down the road in front of your house a dozen times a day for years. Now we’ll be moving in. We’ll also be running our vehicles up and down the road a dozen times a day, so nothing much will change for you.”

This might sound reasonable, until you figure out the vehicles the new folks use range from pickup trucks with equipment trailers to fully loaded dump trucks and tractor-trailers. A dozen vehicles is by their definition just a dozen vehicles, but it is obviously not all the same to you, or to the kids who used to ride their bikes on the road.

That’s exactly the sort of distinction between historical “fracking” and modern, high-volume hydraulic fracturing the modern proponents are trying to obscure. It’s deceptive. It’s dishonest. What they are not telling you is much more significant than what they are telling you.

Historic “fracking” was done with 100,000 gallons of water or less, on vertical wells drilled into an already fractured layer of the earth. The wells could be anywhere from a few hundred feet deep to a couple of thousand feet deep. The chemicals added to the water are essentially acids. The purpose of the acids is to etch the fractured layer in the vicinity of the wellhead, opening up local fractures to improve the flow. The acids nutralize themselves by reacting with the rock. Typically with these shallow vertical wells, briny water mixed with natural gas flows up the well for years. The volume of briny water outflow adds up to much more than the amount of water injected for etching.

The modern, high volume version of fracking uses much more water; 5 to 20 million gallons, or possibly more, for each frack job. In round figures, this is from 50 to 200 times more water. This great increase in volume is the basis for comparing bicycle and scooter traffic to the same number of big industrial trucks.

Along with the water, modern frackers use a great volume of sand, pumped with the water as much as 5000 veet down and another 5000 feet horizontally. It’s pumped at extremely high pressure, to create numerous fractures in a previously unfractured layer of shale. The purpose of the sand is to hold the new fractures open when most of the water flows back up the wellbore.

In addition to water and sand, the solution pumped into the earth includes a bewildering mix of hundreds of different chemicals, some of which are both immediately toxic and long-term cancer causing. The fracking companies have been willing to tell us what some of these chemicals are. Others, they keep secret, claiming that the knowledge is “proprietary” and thus protected.

Fracking proponents will tell us not to worry because the chemicals constitute only a small percentage of the pumped solution; that 98% of it is harmless water and sand. This is another misdirection. 2% of 5 million gallons is 100,000 gallons of added chemicals. 2% of 20 million gallons is 400,000 gallons. Just the chemicals used in a modern frack job are more than the entire volume of water used in a historical fracking.

Additionally, the toxic chemicals are so strong in their effects on humans and animals that the entire pumped solution becomes toxic, in the same way that a drop of cyanide will turn a large cup of coffee deadly. So yes, the chemicals are a fit subject for concern, whether they get into the ground or surface water by any of a dozen possible routes or if they simply get into the air we breathe.

And then, of course, there is the traffic and the noise of a big industrial site and the disruption of land for drilling and pipelines.

Unlike the supposition of trucks above compared to bicycles and scooters, fracking traffic is not imaginary. The sand and chemicals and multi-thousand horsepower engines to run the pumps all must get to the fracking site by being hauled on trucks. The toxic flowback fluid after fracking has to be hauled out on trucks. The common estimate is a thousand trips with huge tank trucks, dump trucks, flatbed trucks and the like for one fracked well. It’s not unusual for one well pad to used for 8 wells, so that’s 8000 or so heavily loaded trucks beating up the local roads at all hours of the day and night. And we are not even counting the trucks that haul work crews to and from the site.

A fracking well site typically turns 5 acres of land into a muddy industrial parking lot, and then the pipeline to get the gas to market requires an indefinite number of miles of trenching outside the site. Even if no accident blows up the local school or poisons nearby wells, the whole operation is very likely to lower the value of properties anywhere within a mile or so of the site while it runs up local road repair bills.

It may well be true that histiorical fracking went on for decades with little or no harm to the area. On balance, modern high volume horizontal fracking costs more than it is worth for the local communities in which it occurs.

Corporations that do fracking are eager to convince these communities otherwise, in much the same way that cigarette companies once advertised, “Not a cough in a carload.” It must have been just a horrible coincidence that the Marlburo Man died of lung cancer. Communities that ban fracking will be better off in the long run than communities that tolerate it.

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