Here’s why we should be concerned
By Bernhard Debatin
Fracking comes like a storm to the affected areas, and it comes in multiple waves. We’ve seen the first wave in Athens county: the leasing frenzy. All it took was the creation of a purported “last minute opportunity” and many people were willing to sign leases that do not sufficiently protect the interests of the landowners. Some people may notice too late that there are Clauses With Consequences in these contracts, as the New York Times put it in a recent article. A worthwhile list of such regrettable clauses is provided in the NYT “Layman’s Guide to Lease Terms.”
The second, even more forceful wave, is what Paul Feecel, a landowner from Carroll County and chair of the Carroll Concerned Citizens group, described as “an invasion” at a recent presentation at the Athens High School (on Dec. 7): When the preparations for the drilling start, a flood of people, on average about 120 persons per drilling pad, will come to the drilling locations and a noisy 24/7 operation will commence. In his first hand account from Carroll County, where 95% of the land is leased for fracking, Feecel reported that countless equipment trucks started to populate the roads, as well as workers’ pick-up trucks and other cars. In preparation for drilling, new access roads were being constructed, electrical lines and gas tanks set up, and gas lines and compressor stations for the gas transport built.
Paul Feecel emphasized that though most workers are from out of state (estimates are 80%-90%), fracking does bring a boom to the affected areas, mostly to motels, fast food chains and restaurants, and to retailers. Some landowners will have quite a lot more money and spend it, too. The economic short-term impact of this boom should not be underestimated, as the example of the oil fracking boom in the northwestern part North Dakota demonstrates. However, this example also shows that boom puts a serious strain on local infrastructure, quality of life, communities, and public health.
In his presentation, Feecel confirmed this double-edged character of the fracking boom. Roads are worn out, erosion and road drainage have become a common feature. Continuous equipment moving, as well as noise and light pollution reduce residences’ quality of life. Some workers live in containers next to the drilling pad, which may put a strain on neighbors who thought they could enjoy the peace and quite of the countryside. Large amounts of toxic drilling agents and other hazardous chemicals used in the drilling process need to be transported safely to the drilling area. However, during the drilling process, they may get spilled on the surface and they will necessarily be injected in the drilling hole and potentially contaminate any adjacent aquifers and caverns (in a coal mining area like Athens County, old coal mines are a serious concern for this).
The third wave comes when the initial drilling is done and production starts. According to Paul Feecel, productive drilling pads stay for some years, with the wells being refracked up to 18 times. During this time, about 1100 to 1300 trucks will drive to and from each pad, moving freshwater, removing wastewater, and transporting equipment. Flaring gas for testing, often stretching over a week or longer, creates jet-engine-like noise.
Gas emitting from the wells causes considerable air pollution — in the well know case of the Jonah Gas Fields in Wyoming, “ozone levels have even exceeded those of famously smoggy Los Angeles.” Similarly alarming smog reports are coming from North Texas. Air pollution due to shale gas production is so prevalent that the overall greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is higher than that of conventional gas, oil, and coal.
Rig fires, truck fires, and well tank explosions are not uncommon, either. Feecel showed some impressive images from recent fires in Carroll County. Tipped over waste trucks and waste water spills are a common occurrence, Feecel pointed out. Toxic fracking fluids may be spilled before or after the fracking process. The open pit wastewater storage ponds with insufficient overflow control (allowed in Ohio) will inevitably lead to surface water pollution, as soon as a good rainstorm hits the area.
Drinking water pollution from fracking is probably the greatest concern for landowners and municipalities. Contamination of aquifers and water wells can happen in four ways: (1) surface spills seep into the ground or are washed into streams that feed aquifers; (2) fracking fluids may leak into aquifers and caverns through faulty cement casings, the weak link of fracking; (3) naturally occurring fissures and cracks, or old oil/gas wells and coal mines, may allow high-pressured fracking fluids to flow into aquifers — this is what most likely happened in Pavillion, WY; and (4) the fracking itself, which creates small underground earthquakes, may compromise the geological structure in a way that existing fault lines and cracks, and old oil/gas wells or coal mines become connected and allow fracking fluids to reach aquifers and water wells.
Faced with this wide array of problems and a reality where fracking is likely to happen in Athens County due to strong economic interests, too, the focus should be on effective damage control strategies.