How the New American “Oil Boom” Might Destroy the Environment and Decimate the Health of Millions

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Some forecasters claim the US will outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2017, effectively rendering the US self-sufficient in terms of energy production. Others analysts warn shale drilling is the next Big Bubble that could rival the bank industry bailouts
  • Recently unsealed court records show fracking activities in Pennsylvania leaked acetone into fresh water supplies. Plaintiff’s water supply was also found to be contaminated with unsafe levels of acrylonitrile, a highly flammable and toxic chemical compound classified as a probable carcinogen
  • Fracking proponents claim it is a safe and effective drilling method that reduces the surface footprint of the drilling operation. However, people across the US have reported serious adverse health events resulting from contamination of air and/or drinking water
  • Reported adverse effects of exposure to fracking chemicals include respiratory ailments, shortness of breath, chemical sensitivities, skin rashes, swelling, skin lesions, severe headaches, nausea and vomiting

By Dr. Mercola

Recent headlines in the American press would have you believe we’re in for a robust economic boom, courtesy of the new shale gas revolution. Some forecasters claim the US will outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2017, effectively rendering the US self-sufficient in terms of energy production.

But are we really “swimming in oil”? And is the shale revolution really the answer to all our energy and economic problems?

In pictures and words, three different publications tell the story, while EPA documents add a twist as to how wetlands should be protected through all this, but aren’t.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order No. 11990 for the protection of wetlands,1 which prohibits anyone, including farmers, from altering wetlands in any way.

As a result of that legislation farmers are unable to touch wetlands without fear of federal prosecution, which can at times put extreme limits on their farming protocols due to the stringent way wetlands are defined. Sometimes a simple puddle in a farmer’s field can be defined as a wetland.

Conversely, oil companies now come in and wipe out huge tracts of wetlands without any repercussions at all, showing that, apparently, wetland protection loses its importance when oil company profits are at stake.

The Great Oil Swindle

As reported in The Atlantic,2 the Bakken shale situated in North Dakota holds an estimated 18 billion barrels of crude oil. Originally discovered in 1951, the oil was too expensive to extract at the time, as it’s embedded in the rock.

That all changed in 2008 when hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," became widely available. Since then, North Dakota has experienced a massive oil drilling boom, and as of this year, the state has more than 200 active oil rigs producing about 20 million barrels of oil per month.

The oil business has dramatically altered the state’s landscape, and pictures3 show big fracking sites now located right next to private homes and farms, and as revealed in the PBS special above, having a fracking operation on your land can be devastating to your health...

Another article in Le Monde Diplomatique4 highlights the environmental destruction that accompanies oil and natural gas fracking, and also questions whether the fracking boom is little more than another bubble—“a temporary recovery that masks deep structural instability”:

These resources can only be mined at the cost of massive environmental pollution: their extraction involves hydraulic fracturing... using the technique of horizontal drilling... But their exploitation in the US has brought about the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs and offers the advantage of cheap and abundant energy...

But is the shale revolution all it’s fracked up to be?

The ongoing fragility of the global economy should give pause for thought... But policymakers have learnt few lessons from the 2008 crash, and may be on course to repeat similar mistakes in the petroleum sector.

A New York Times investigation first unearthed major cracks in the 'shale boom' narrative in June 2011, finding that state geologists, industry lawyers and market analysts 'privately' questioned 'whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves.'

According to the paper, 'the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.'”

Two US energy consultants reportedly sounded the alarm at the beginning of 2012 with an article in the British energy industry journal Petroleum Review. They wrote that there’s a “basis for reasonable doubts about the reliability and durability of US shale gas reserves.” They claim the reserves have been “inflated” under new Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules that allow gas companies to make claims about the size of the reserve without an independent third party audit. This overestimation of reserves can hide lack of profitability.

According to former UK chief government scientist Sir David King, production at wells tends to drop off by 60-90 percent within the first year of production alone, and petroleum geologist Arthur Berman has noted that the annual decline in production exceeds 42 percent. All in all, this makes drilling for shale gas extremely unprofitable...

As noted in the featured article:

Finance specialists have not been taken in. 'The economics of fracking are horrid,' writes US financial journalist Wolf Richter in Business Insider. 'Drilling is destroying capital at an astonishing rate, and drillers are left with a mountain of debt just when decline rates are starting to wreak their havoc. To keep the decline rates from mucking up income statements, companies had to drill more and more, with new wells making up for the declining production of old wells. Alas, the scheme hit a wall, namely reality.'”

According to financial analyst John Dizard, producers of shale gas have borrowed large amounts of money just to fund the initial land acquisition drilling. Operating under “deficit financing,” they’ve spent two to five times their operating cash flow just to get started, and with production dropping off at a staggering rate, these producers quickly find themselves operating in the red.

What it all amounts to is an “oil bubble” that could rival the recent bank bailouts. The question is where is the bailout money for the oil and gas industry going to come from? Worse yet, depending on how far the bubble is allowed to expand and how many new wells are drilled to maintain even production, the environment could be absolutely decimated in the process of trying to avert what appears to be an inevitable financial cataclysm...

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Unsealed Records in Pennsylvania Fracking Case Reveals Contamination Problems

A lawsuit recently unsealed in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas reveals the health hazards associated with the fracking process, and how revolving doors between industry and agencies tasked to investigate wrongdoing places your health a distant second to industry profits. According to

“The Hallowich family sued the gas drillers after they say nearby drilling activity, including compressor stations, made their children sick. The mother, Stephanie Hallowich became an outspoken critic of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. But the final settlement imposed a strict gag order on the Hallowich family, as well as the gas drilling companies. The Hallowich family has since moved from their home.”

The drilling companies, Range Resources, MarkWest Energy and Williams Gas, settled the contamination case for $750,000, according to recently unsealed records, of which the Hallowich children receive $10,000 each. The order to unseal the records was entered on March 20, reversing a previous decision to have them permanently sealed. According to the judge, claims of privacy rights on behalf of the drillers had no merit. The records are now posted in full on the NPR site.6

The records show that the fracking activities had leaked acetone into fresh water supplies, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspector tasked with investigating complaints about the water contamination went on to work for the drilling company, Range Resources. Not surprisingly, complaint files at the DEP were subsequently found to be missing...

The Hallowich’s drinking water was found to be contaminated with acrylonitrile above “safe” levels, a highly flammable and toxic chemical compound classified as a probable carcinogen. The Hallowich's also claimed air emissions from the gas processing plant made them sick. However, as part of the settlement, the Hallowich's signed an affidavit stating there’s "no medical evidence" that their children's symptoms are "definitively" connected to drilling activity.

Is Fracking Really Safe for the Environment and Residents of the Area?

Fracking proponents claim it is a safe and effective drilling method that reduces the surface footprint of the drilling operation. However, people across the US have reported serious adverse health events resulting from contamination of air and/or drinking water.

The method entails pumping chemical-laced water and sand at high pressure into shale rock formation, thereby releasing hydrocarbons. The chemicals used in the process have the potential to leak into nearby groundwater, as they did in the Pennsylvania case above, either from the well, or from spills above ground. Yet another concern is fracking-induced earthquakes. Reported adverse effects of exposure to fracking chemicals include:

      • Respiratory ailments; shortness of breath
      • Chemical sensitivities
      • Skin rashes; swelling; lesions
      • Severe headaches
      • Nausea and vomiting

According to Reuters,7 several drillers have been fined for water contamination due to spilled fracking fluids, and in 2011 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released findings of a potential link between fracking and water contamination after sampling water supplies in Pavillion, Wyoming. The EPA is scheduled to release an in-depth study on fracking’s impact on water supplies in 2014. In the following video, Cornell University professor Anthony Ingraffea explains the destructive process of fracking. The lecture was given at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania in 2010.

Freshwater in Increasingly Short Supply

While it may seem unthinkable to some, especially Westerners, freshwater supplies are dwindling across the globe, making protecting drinking water supplies all the more critical—be it from agricultural or industry pollution, or any other source of contamination. According to a recent article in Scientific American,8 the combined water use by US agriculture, industry and population exceeds all the water flowing in the nation’s rivers. The remainder is supplied from groundwater aquifers, which are receding at a faster pace than being replenished. Financial products innovator Richard Sandor predicts water (both quantity and quality) may soon be traded as goods. Needless to say, at that point, those who cannot pay will not get any...

In light of that, it seems irresponsible to allow shale fracking operations to blast toxic chemicals into the earth that can then contaminate groundwater supplies. Fines and payouts to victims who successfully sue will not protect our water supplies. Only stopping the fracking will. According to

“The major concern with shale gas drilling is the chemicals used in the process. Because the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use.

A study conducted by Theo Colburn, PhD, the director of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado, has so far identified 65 chemicals that are probable components of the fracking fluids used by shale gas drillers. These chemicals included benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All of these chemicals have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high.

Concerns are growing that many of the chemicals used in shale gas drilling are seeping into groundwater. While some of the injection fluid used in the process comes back to the surface, 30 to 40 percent is never recovered, according to the industry’s own estimates.”

Improper disposal of waste water from fracking operations have also been noted. In 2011, natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania were found to have shipped toxic and radioactive hydraulic fracking waste water to sewage treatment plants that were not properly equipped to treat it. From there, it was dispersed into rivers and streams which provide drinking water to millions of people.

What's the Best Option for Safe, Pure Water?

There’s no doubt about it: Safe, pure water is becoming increasingly difficult to come by, even in otherwise affluent, developed nations. For most people, regardless of where you live, purifying the water you drink is more a necessity than a choice. By this I do NOT mean resorting to bottled water from your supermarket. Bottled water is typically nothing more than bottled tap water that may or may not have received additional filtration, and the federal testing requirements for bottled water are actually more lax than those for communal water supplies.

One of the best alternatives to the tap may be finding a gravity-fed raw spring in your area—barring contamination from nearby agriculture or fracking operations, that is. Fortunately, natural springs are often monitored by the local municipalities for contaminants.

Natural spring water is naturally filtered by the earth and is "living water," in the same way that raw food is "living food," which is why it's some of the most healthful water on the planet. Before you dismiss this idea because you think there are no such springs in your neck of the woods, there is a Web site called FindaSpring.com10 that can help you locate springs in your area.

The next best option is to filter the water that comes out of your tap, but there are benefits and drawbacks to virtually every water filtration system on the market. Currently I use a whole house carbon-based water filtration system. Prior to this I used reverse osmosis (RO) to purify my water. This previous article can help you make a decision about the type of water filtration system that would be best for you and your family. Since most water sources are now severely polluted, the issue of water filtration and purification couldn't be more important.