Fracking Our Way to a Toxic Planet
Such pressures in the Third World have forced the major US and European firms—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total of France—to look elsewhere for new sources of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately for them, there aren't many places left in the world that possess promising hydrocarbon reserves and also welcome investment by private energy giants. That's why some of the most attractive new energy markets now lie in Canada and the United States, or in the waters off their shores. As a result, both are experiencing a remarkable uptick in fresh investment from the major international firms.
Both countries still possess substantial oil and gas deposits, but not of the "easy" variety (deposits close to the surface, close to shore, or easily accessible for extraction). All that remains are "tough" energy reserves (deep underground, far offshore, hard to extract and process). To exploit these, the energy companies must deploy aggressive technologies likely to cause extensive damage to the environment and in many cases human health as well. They must also find ways to gain government approval to enter environmentally protected areas now off limits.
The formula for making Canada and the US the "Saudi Arabia" of the twenty-first century is grim but relatively simple: environmental protections will have to be eviscerated and those who stand in the way of intensified drilling, from landowners to local environmental protection groups, bulldozed out of the way. Put another way, North America will have to be Third-Worldified.
Consider the extraction of shale oil and gas, widely considered the most crucial aspect of Big Oil's current push back into the North American market. Shale formations in Canada and the US are believed to house massive quantities of oil and natural gas, and their accelerated extraction is already helping reduce the region's reliance on imported petroleum.
Both energy sources, however, can only be extracted through a process known as hydraulic fracturing ("hydro-fracking," or just plain "fracking") that uses powerful jets of water in massive quantities to shatter underground shale formations, creating fissures through which the hydrocarbons can escape. In addition, to widen these fissures and ease the escape of the oil and gas they hold, the fracking water has to be mixed with a variety of often poisonous solvents and acids. This technique produces massive quantities of toxic wastewater, which can neither be returned to the environment without endangering drinking water supplies nor easily stored and decontaminated.
The rapid expansion of hydro-fracking would be problematic under the best of circumstances, which these aren't. Many of the richest sources of shale oil and gas, for instance, are located in populated areas of Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. In fact, one of the most promising sites, the Marcellus formation, abuts New York City's upstate watershed area. Under such circumstances, concern over the safety of drinking water should be paramount, and federal legislation, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, should theoretically give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to oversee (and potentially ban) any procedures that endanger water supplies.
However, oil companies seeking to increase profits by maximizing the utilization of hydro-fracking banded together, put pressure on Congress, and managed to get itself exempted from the 1974 law's provisions. In 2005, under heavy lobbying from then Vice President Dick Cheney—formerly the CEO of oil services contractor Halliburton—Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which prohibited the EPA from regulating hydro-fracking via the Safe Drinking Water Act, thereby eliminating a significant impediment to wider use of the technique.
Since then, there has been a virtual stampede to the shale regions by the major oil companies, which have in many cases devoured smaller firms that pioneered the development of hydro-fracking. (In 2009, for example, ExxonMobil paid $31 billion to acquire XTO Energy, one of the leading producers of shale gas.) As the extraction of shale oil and gas has accelerated, the industry has faced other problems. To successfully exploit promising shale formations, for instance, energy firms must insert many wells, since each fracking operation can only extend several hundred feet in any direction, requiring the establishment of noisy, polluting, and potentially hazardous drilling operations in well-populated rural and suburban areas.
While drilling has been welcomed by some of these communities as a source of added income, many have vigorously opposed the invasion, seeing it as an assault on neighborhood peace, health, and safety. In an effort to protect their quality of life, some Pennsylvania communities, for example, have adopted zoning laws that ban fracking in their midst. Viewing this as yet another intolerable obstacle, the industry has put intense pressure on friendly members of the state legislature to adopt a law depriving most local jurisdictions of the right to exclude fracking operations. "We have been sold out to the gas industry, plain and simple," said Todd Miller, a town commissioner in South Fayette Township who opposed the legislation.
If the energy industry has its way in North America, there will be many more Todd Millers complaining about the way their lives and worlds have been "sold out" to the energy barons. Similar battles are already being fought elsewhere in North America, as energy firms seek to overcome resistance to expanded drilling in areas once protected from such activity.
In Alaska, for example, the industry is fighting in the courts and in Congress to allow drilling in coastal areas, despite opposition from Native American communities which worry that vulnerable marine animals and their traditional way of life will be put at risk. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in the Chukchi Sea, an area important to several such communities.
And this is just the beginning. To gain access to additional stores of oil and gas, the industry is seeking to eliminate virtually all environmental restraints imposed since the 1960s and open vast tracts of coastal and wilderness areas, including ANWR, to intensive drilling. It also seeks the construction of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to transport synthetic crude oil made from Canadian tar sands—a particularly "dirty" and environmentally devastating form of energy which has attracted substantial US investment—to Texas and Louisiana for further processing. According to Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the preferred US energy strategy "would include greater access to areas that are currently off limits, a regulatory and permitting process that supported reasonable timelines for development, and immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline."
To achieve these objectives, the API, which claims to represent more than 490 oil and natural gas companies, has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to sway the 2012 elections, dubbed "Vote 4 Energy." While describing itself as nonpartisan, the API-financed campaign seeks to discredit and marginalize any candidate, including President Obama, who opposes even the mildest version of its drill-anywhere agenda.
"There [are] two paths that we can take" on energy policy, the Vote 4 Energy Web site proclaims. "One path leads to more jobs, higher government revenues and greater US energy security—which can be achieved by increasing oil and natural gas development right here at home. The other path would put jobs, revenues and our energy security at risk." This message will be broadcast with increasing frequency as Election Day nears.
According to the energy industry, we are at a fork in the road and can either chose a path leading to greater energy independence or to ever more perilous energy insecurity. But there is another way to characterize that "choice": on one path, the United States will increasingly come to resemble a Third World petro-state, with compliant government leaders, an increasingly money-ridden and corrupt political system, and negligible environmental and health safeguards; on the other, which would also involve far greater investment in the development of renewable alternative energies, it would remain a First World nation with strong health and environmental regulations and robust democratic institutions.
How we characterize our energy predicament in the coming decades and what path we ultimately select will in large measure determine the fate of this nation.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources just published by Metropolitan Books. To listen to Timothy MacBain's Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here . Klare can be followed on Facebook. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.