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Cracking Down on Fracking

Posted on Feb 23, 2010

By Amy Goodman

Mike Markham of Colorado has an explosive problem: His tap water catches fire. Markham demonstrates this in a new documentary, “Gasland,” which just won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Director Josh Fox films Markham as he runs his kitchen faucet, holding a cigarette lighter up to the running water. After a few seconds, a ball of fire erupts out of the sink, almost enveloping Markham’s head.

The source of the flammable water, and the subject of “Gasland,” is the mining process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” 

Fracking is used to access natural gas and oil reserves buried thousands of feet below the ground. Companies like Halliburton drill down vertically, then send the shaft horizontally, crossing many small, trapped veins of gas and oil. Explosive charges are then set off at various points in the drill shaft, causing what Fox calls “mini-earthquakes.” These fractures spread underground, allowing the gas to flow back into the shaft to be extracted. To force open the fractures, millions of gallons of liquid are forced into the shaft at very high pressure.

The high-pressure liquids are a combination of water, sand and a secret mix of chemicals. Each well requires between 1 million and 7 million gallons of the fluid every time gas is extracted. Drillers do not have to reveal the chemical cocktail, thanks to a slew of exemptions given to the industry, most notably in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which actually granted the fracking industry a specific exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. California Congressman Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has just announced an investigation into the composition of the proprietary chemicals used in fracking. In a Feb. 18 letter, Waxman commented on the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption: “Many dubbed this provision the ‘Halliburton loophole’ because of Halliburton’s ties to then-Vice President Cheney and its role as one of the largest providers of hydraulic fracturing services.” Before he was vice president, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton.

In an earlier investigation, Waxman learned that Halliburton had violated a 2003 nonbinding agreement with the government in which the company promised not to use diesel fuel in the mix when extracting from certain wells. Halliburton pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic, diesel-containing liquids into the ground, potentially contaminating drinking water.


Square, Site wide

According to the Department of Energy, there were more than 418,000 gas wells in the U.S. as of 2006. Since the Environmental Protection Agency lacks authority to investigate and regulate fracking, the extent of the pollution is unknown. Yet, as Josh Fox traveled the country, becoming increasingly engrossed in the vastness of the domestic drilling industry and the problems it creates, he documented how people living near gas wells are suffering water contamination, air pollution and numerous health problems that crop up after fracking. It’s personal for Fox: He lives in Pennsylvania, on a stream that feeds into the Delaware River, atop the “Marcellus Shale,” a subterranean region from New York to Tennessee with extensive natural gas reserves. Fracking in the Marcellus Shale could potentially contaminate the water supplies of both New York City and Philadelphia. Fox was offered almost $100,000 for the gas rights to his 19 acres, which led him to investigate the industry, and ultimately to produce his award-winning documentary.

There is virtually no federal oversight of fracking, leaving the budget-strapped states to do the job with a patchwork of disparate regulations. They are no match for the major, multinational drilling and energy companies that are exploiting the political goal of “energy independence.” The nonprofit news website found that, out of 31 states examined, 21 have no regulations specific to hydraulic fracturing, and none requires the companies to report the amount of the toxic fluid remaining underground.

Reports indicate that almost 600 different chemicals are used in fracking, including diesel fuel and the “BTEX” chemicals: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, which include known carcinogens. 

Dr. Theo Colborn, zoologist and expert on chemical pollution from fracking, appears in “Gasland,” saying, “Every environmental law we wrote to protect public health is ignored. ... We can’t monitor until we know what they’re using.”

Fox ends “Gasland” with an excerpt of a congressional hearing. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., aggressively question gas industry executives about water contamination. The two have submitted a bill, the proposed FRAC Act, which would remove the “Halliburton loophole,” forcing drillers to reveal the chemical components used in fracking. It’s time to close the door on the Cheney energy policy and take immediate steps to protect clean water.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 800 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

© 2010 Amy Goodman

Distributed by King Features Syndicate

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By vedette, December 10, 2010 at 11:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A related article about the way fracking is disturbing the drinking water supply in Canada:  It’s virtually unregulated up here too, even without a “Halliburton loophole.”

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By jburge, July 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm Link to this comment

Although it is a bit off topic I would have to dissagree that nuclear power’s downsides are “hysterical myths” as SteveK9 says. Although I do agree that this is a cleaner option to some of the coal and fossil fuel technologies, when it is operating properly, however, the potential risks are too big to ignore. If we learned anything from Chernobyl it should be the long term effects of these types of accidents. Chernobyl by the way has been blamed on the late shift doing daytime matainence. The workers were tired so they didn’t see the runaway reaction before it was too late. There have been many underreported near misses in the US including three mile island.
The other issue is the waste, there are plans to create a tomb for the nuclear waste we have produced over the years, and they are having problems with deciding what to put on the sign, because of the fear that current language will be lost and some future civilization may find the tomb and try to explore it. The half-life of various nuclear wastes varry from 5-90 years for Medium-lived fission products, to as high as 15 MILLION years, and that’s only the time to loose Half of it’s radioactivity.
“Nicholas Beresford and Jim Smith, UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology: The spent nuclear fuel is the most hazardous material to deal with. It includes one isotope of Plutonium, Plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. After 240,000 years (10 half lives) only 0.1% will remain. After 720,000 years (30 half-lives) it should be fairly safe.”
“Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK campaigner: Well, perhaps less than 100 people died on the day of the Chernobyl accident, but the ongoing health impacts of Chernobyl are staggering. Our report, published last week, shows that the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers.“

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By sukrityt8, March 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm Link to this comment

I totally agree with SteveK9 here! I believe that the hysteria over nuclear power is solely political (the fear of one country getting more powerful than its neighbor). However, economically, it is going to cut down on our power bills by a big margin provided it is used right! The answer to an energy-starved planet of ours is definitely nuclear power!

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By SteveK9, February 28, 2010 at 9:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The answer to many problems is nuclear power.  Yes, I know all the hysterical
myths about nuclear energy—- they are just that.  Nuclear has a tiny footprint on
the environment (the key is that the energy density of uranium or thorium is
millions of times that of fossil fuels).  Nuclear energy will provide the cheap,
limitless, environmentally benign (educate yourself if you find this incredible)
energy that a modern civilization requires.

By the way, this will happen whether we lead the way or not.  Increasingly it seems
that role will be filled by Asia (China, India, Korea, Japan).

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By cabdriver, February 26, 2010 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Perhaps the biggest, most long-lived environmental disaster ever associated with the petroleum industry.

The Exxon Valdez spill was a contained disaster that’s slowly healing.

If this isn’t stopped, there will be no end to it.

If we need petroleum products that badly, we’d be better off drilling off the coast of California. I say that as a California resident.

I would never have believed that Dick Cheney could have left a more infamous personal legacy than his promotion of torture. But the exemption of hydro-fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act may be it.

Equally disgraceful is the fact that the Congress passed the 2005 Energy Policy Act containing that exemption; that president George W. Bush signed it; and that- to my knowledge- not one major media outlet of the day devoted an iota of coverage to the bill and its horrific contents.

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By waldo, February 26, 2010 at 12:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Welcome to the newest third world country—America.  This is the way corpoRAT elites, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. have treated third world countries for years and years.  The American elite has now turned on America itself. 

With globalization, the health and wellbeing of American citizens is of no interest, financial or otherwise, to the elite.  Traitors and treasonous scum, every one of them

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By bn50, February 25, 2010 at 6:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t believe the bit about explosive charges in the 3rd paragraph is true.  Please check that out.

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By gerard, February 25, 2010 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

A word to look out for in publicity supporting these polluting industries:  “Beneficiation.”

Entire companies are formed to manufacture machinery to “beneficiate” polluted places like mining and chemical wsste environments by removing “most” or “almost all” of the “more harmful” chemicals in the debris before it gets into people’s drinking water.  I believe the word was invented expressly for advertising purposes as I never heard it before I saw a recent ad online.

Truth seems to be that the guarantees are not particularly trustworthy, but meant primarily to calm the public.

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By Jim Yell, February 25, 2010 at 8:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This all comes around to a question I have asked repeatedly, “Why isn’t Dick Cheney being tried for his crimes?” In fact, “why isn’t he in jail by now?”

No one has the right to pollute and industry that makes such huge profits, should not be unpunished for deliberately polluting.

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By gerard, February 24, 2010 at 7:25 pm Link to this comment

Where’s the editor of these comment columns?  Or do you think it is a good idea to take advertisements and help people sell stuff?  Please respond.

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By ofersince72, February 24, 2010 at 6:30 pm Link to this comment

Amy , this has little to do with fracking but

could you please ask one of your constitutional
lawyer friends if mandates in the health care
bill are constitutional

it seems to me that the supreme court just might
make the mandate of buying health care coverage
from a private ins. company unconstitutional…

if they do, where will that leave us ????

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By gerard, February 24, 2010 at 3:19 pm Link to this comment

Didn’t I read somewhere that last week new oil wells were to take over an “Indian Reservation” somewhere in western Montana, and the “natives” were very glad to get the money? Many of these places being exploited for energy and polluted without conscience are owned by people who do not in the least understand what they are getting in for, but are so poor that any money looks good to them. “Poor” all too often also means “unschooled,” and therefore easy to take advantage of.

Time and again corporations have proven that they have no conscience whatsoever.  Therefore we have to find some way to pass laws to rein them in, and then enforce those laws. 

But they own the government, you will say. Are you crazy?

I know. But I’m counting on a germ of human decency still left here and there, in hidden corners of the American soul—that spark of justice and honor that will rise up out of the heartland and stop America’s race toward creating a hell on earth.

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By ofersince72, February 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment

Amy don’t worry yourself

we have congressional committees…
they will study and study and study the situation
(with their hands out)

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By JamesT, February 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment

Is there anything that Halliburton isn’t involved in?  I can see why the hunt for water on other planets has intensified so much of late.  We’re on the verge of poisoning every drop of it on this planet.

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By ofersince72, February 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm Link to this comment

As CARLIN said

The planet is doing just fine….be here long after
we’re gone..

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By JW, February 24, 2010 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A related article about the way fracking is disturbing the drinking water supply in Canada:  It’s virtually unregulated up here too, even without a “Halliburton loophole.”

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By oldcurmudgeon, February 24, 2010 at 11:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Here is a link to a ‘fracking’ industry fluff piece that appeared in MIT Technology review:

The process for extracting shale gas is only alluded to with no real discussion - only benefits - a complete whitewash of negative effects!!!!

“Range and other gas producers rely on drilling techniques that have been used for the past decade in the shale-gas fields of northeast Texas. Inside the trailer that serves as a field office, the complexity of the task is evident. On a wall is a chart mapping the drilling plans. The drill bit will head down more than a thousand meters through various types of sediments. Then, over the course of roughly 275 meters, it will gradually turn 90°, so that when it enters the layer of Marcellus shale at around 2,000 meters, it will be traveling horizontally through the gas-rich rock. Drillers can control the location of the bit to within several centimeters. Staying within a six-meter window, the bit will follow the Marcellus layer for up to 1,600 meters. The horizontal approach is crucial, allowing the well to tap into a large area of the shale layer. Eventually, the several wells at the site will spread out underneath the countryside, draining gas from hundreds of acres of shale.

The trickiest part of the operation comes after the drilling is done and the large rig is removed. A small armada of specialized equipment, including dozens of tanker trucks filled with water, will move in to perform a procedure called hydraulic fracture stimulation, or hydrofracturing, which is designed to get the gas flowing efficiently into the well. Although the Marcellus shale is soaked with gas, the rock holds the hydrocarbon tightly trapped. To allow it to escape, engineers will force millions of gallons of water down the well and into the shale formation at high pressure. If all goes well, the natural gas will rush out of the shale and into the pipe after the water is pumped back out.

That the process works is a tribute to the wonders of geology and the ingenuity of the drilling engineers. Like the black shale on the shores of Lake Erie, the Marcellus shale is riddled with tiny natural fractures created million of years ago as the newly formed hydrocarbon gases expanded. The high-pressure water, which is mixed with fine sand and chemical additives, works to enlarge those cracks. The results: gas-permeable zones of damaged rock a hundred or more meters across, radiating out from the well pipe.”

:But I could be wrong !

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By ofersince72, February 24, 2010 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

They are not ever going to stop fracking or screwing

I will say again

The Obama presidency has made the case that the
military now has COMPLETE control of our government
for their corporate sponsers.

The totalitarian state is not inverted anymore if it
ever was.
Our elections have not made a difference in years,
they are controlled, bought and even rigged
They make appearences to make it seem all is well
by allowing some dissent such as DN.
we r screwed, along with the nations that ore being
destroyed by the drones.

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By garyrose66, February 24, 2010 at 10:16 am Link to this comment

Great article!  As a FORMER oil company environment health and safety executive managing EHS regulatory and legislative affairs I can say that the problem is far far worse than exploding tap water. Some of the previous commenters were right on: humans cannot live on the planet without potable water…it is by far the most valuable tangible object on the planet, and this insane short term gain is being balanced against the long term PERMANENT loss of ground water in the US.  If you think importing 70% of our oil needs puts the US in a vulnerable position vis a vis the oil exporting dictators, imagine having to import water from rogue nations!!  The point Ms. Goodman, and Rep. Waxman are missing is that this process is an extraordinary benefit for the oil companies: THEY GET TO DUMP THEIR TOXIC REFINERY WASTES IN VAST VOLUMES FOR FREE!  The oil companies and plastic manufacturers who use oil company products have since the early 80s been desperately trying to find ways to get rid of their waste streams without paying for wildly expensive and highly risky toxic waste dumps.  MTBE as a gasoline additive was the first round…burn your waste stream in automobiles.  Now Fracking is the perfect new solution: JUST INJECT THE WASTE STREAM in deep wells.  Our strong toxic waste control laws could be the route our legislators can take to attack this problem!

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knobcreekfarmer's avatar

By knobcreekfarmer, February 24, 2010 at 9:26 am Link to this comment

NO! Wait!

We need all that natural gas to run the good green “alternative” energy Bloom Boxes
that are going to save us! Without fossil fuels these overly complex energy miser
personal power plants wont do anything but take up space on Google’s law.

Frack baby Frack!! Come on, let’s go!!

The faster we destroy our planet, and ourselves, the faster the planet can start to heal.

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By balkas, February 24, 2010 at 9:15 am Link to this comment

If one writes own laws, one can and will everytime ignore them if perceived to be in the way of one’s progress. tnx

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By SoTexGuy, February 24, 2010 at 6:06 am Link to this comment

So.. can we now finally get a look at Cheney’s top secret ‘Energy Policy’ summit meeting?

Who was there?
What was discussed?
All the details of plans considered and adopted?
Who wanted such an important meeting to be so privy?

If the people can’t find out about all that now, then exactly when? Nothing remains secret forever.

It was the gossip of the day that Cheney et-AL were divvying up Iraq’s black gold.. It seems now likely that any cynical plans to profit from a post Saddam Iraq could be among the lesser revelations of a real look at those proceedings.

C’mon Obama! Let the sunshine in..


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By jonathonk99, February 24, 2010 at 5:52 am Link to this comment

it almost enveloped his head!? 

Can’t they redirect those fireballs up Cheney’s asshole somehow?  C’mon!  We’ll
just call it another “enhanced coercive interrogation technique”.  Maybe then we’ll
get some answers.  hahahehha

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photoshock's avatar

By photoshock, February 24, 2010 at 5:43 am Link to this comment

Not only are we, the people allowing this abomination to continue, but the Congress, having been bought and paid for, is continuing the tradition of bowing to their masters: The Corporatocracy!
We the people, cannot long continue this charade of ‘democracy!’ We are not a democracy any longer, but a conglomeration of corporations who run this country for their profit and pleasure.
How did this occur? Look back in history to the Federal Reserve Act of 1903. When the major banking families got together on Jekyll Island, Georgia and wrote the Federal Reserve Act and it then passed the Congress by a vote of 3-0 on Dec. 24, 1903 America became a country which would become a tyrannical and despotic state with no laws that money could not buy.
Somehow, the people have to wake up and shake off the
somnambulist slumber of Madison Avenue fakery and arise to the fact that we are becoming and are almost there, A Fascist State run by the elite of the world.
Given the choice between the corporatocracy and death, we are going to have to choose! We cannot long survive the coming Christian Fascist State, wherein the Far Right Wing Nuts choose for us, how we
are to live, where we are to live and most importantly, our lifestyle choices!
Wake up America, democracy is a fantasy that is best left unsaid and left behind. We are the government, we cannot give the power to the corporations any longer, we must have jobs that are meaningful, pay well and corporations that are accountable to the people of this country. Not the elite moneyed class, but the working class which built this country.

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By Ouroborus, February 24, 2010 at 4:43 am Link to this comment

With the coming water shortages and consequent water wars, just how effin stupid is it to destroy the single most valuable thing on this planet?
Water; try living without it.

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By john, February 24, 2010 at 12:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Forever polluting essential life sustaining drinking water resources for millions and generations of Americans while exhausting an energy supply, is as intellegent as having Dick Chaney along on your hunting trip. 
These are terrorist. Call 911. Bin Ladin is back running Halliburton.

Thank you Amy and Dennis

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By ofersince72, February 23, 2010 at 10:32 pm Link to this comment

We all have been fracked !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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