This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
For the past several years, I've been writing about what happens when big oil and gas corporations drill where people live. "Fracking"— high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which extracts oil and methane from deep shale—has become my beat. My interviewees live in Pennsylvania's shale-gas fields; among Wisconsin's hills, where corporations have been mining silica, an essential fracking ingredient; and in New York, where one of the most powerful grassroots movements in the state's long history of dissent has become ground zero for anti-fracking activism across the country. Some of the people I've met have become friends. We email, talk by phone, and visit. But until recently I'd always felt at a remove from the dangers they face: contaminated water wells, poisoned air, sick and dying animals, industry-related illnesses. Under Massachusetts, where I live, lie no methane- or oil-rich shale deposits, so there's no drilling.
But this past September, I learned that Spectra Energy, one of the largest natural gas infrastructure companies in North America, had proposed changes in a pipeline it owns, the Algonquin, which runs from Texas into my hometown, Boston. The expanded Algonquin would carry unconventional gas—gas extracted from deep rock formations like shale—into Massachusetts from the great Marcellus formation that sprawls along the Appalachian basin from West Virginia to New York. Suddenly, I'm in the crosshairs of the fracking industry, too.
We all are.
Gas fracked from shale formations goes by several names ("unconventional gas," "natural gas," "shale gas"), but whatever it's called, it's mainly methane. Though we may not know it, fracked gas increasingly fuels our stoves and furnaces. It also helps to fuel the floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and ever-hotter summers that are engulfing the planet. The industry's global-warming footprint is actually greater than that of coal. (A Cornell University study that established this in 2011 has been reconfirmed since.) Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) and an ecological nightmare due to its potential for dangerous leaks.
According to former Mobil Oil executive Lou Allstadt, the greatest danger of fracking is the methane it adds to the atmosphere through leaks from wells, pipelines, and other associated infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found leakage rates of 2.3% to 17% of annual production at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado, and Utah. Moreover, no technology can guarantee long-term safety decades into the future when it comes to well casings (there are hundreds of thousands of frack wells in the to date) or in the millions of miles of pipelines that crisscross this country.
The energy industry boasts that fracking is a "bridge" to renewable energies, but a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that shale gas development could end up crowding out alternative energies. That's because as fracking spreads, it drives natural gas prices down, spurring greater consumer use, and so more fracking. In a country deficient in regulations and high in corporate pressures on government, this cascade effect creates enormous disincentives for investment in large alternative energy programs.
The sorry state of renewable energy development proves the case. As the fracking industry has surged, the country continues to lag far behind Germany and Denmark, the world's renewable-energy leaders. A quarter-century after the world's leading climate change scientist, James Hansen, first warned Congress about global warming, Americans have only bad options: coal, shale gas, oil, or nuclear power.
Living in Gasland
There's been a great deal of reporting about "the drilling part" of fracking—the moment when drills penetrate shale and millions of gallons of chemical-and-sand-laced water are pumped down at high pressure to fracture the rock. Not so much has been written about all that follows. It's the "everything else" that has turned a drilling technology into a land-and-water-devouring industry so vast that it's arguably one of the most pervasive extractive adventures in history.
According to Cornell University's Anthony Ingraffea, the co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, fracking "involves much more than drill-the-well-frack-the-well-connect-the-pipeline-and-go-away." Almost all other industries "occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools." By contrast, the industry spawned by fracking "permits the oil and gas industries to establish [their infrastructures] next to where we live. They are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals, and schools inside their industrial space."
Wells, flanked by batteries of vats, tanks, and diesel trucks, often stand less than a mile from homes. So do compressor stations that condense gas for its long journey through pipelines, and which are known to emit carcinogens and neurotoxins. Radioactive waste (spewed up in fracking flow-back and drill cuttings) gets dumped on roads and in ordinary waste sites. Liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals that move this energy source for export are a constant danger due to explosions, fires, spills, and leaks. Every part of the fracking colossus, it seems, has its rap sheet of potential environmental and public health harms.
Of all these, pipelines are the industry's most ubiquitous feature. Energy Information Administration maps show landscapes so densely veined by pipelines that they look like smashed windshields. There are more than 350,000 miles of gas pipelines in the These are for the transmission of gas from region to region. Not included are more than two million miles of distribution and service pipelines, which run through thousands of cities and towns with new branches under constant construction. All these pipelines mean countless Americans—even those living far from gas fields, compressor stations, and terminals—find themselves on the frontlines of fracking.
The letter arrived in the spring of 2011. It offered Leona Briggs $10,400 to give a group of companies the right to run a pipeline with an all-American name—the Constitution—through her land. For 50 years Briggs has lived in the town of Davenport, just south of the Susquehanna River in New York's Western Catskills. Maybe she seemed like an easy mark. After all, her house's clapboard exterior needs a paint job and she's living on a meager Social Security check every month. But she refused.
She treasures her land, her apple trees, the wildlife that surrounds her. She points toward a tree, a home to an American kestrel. "There was a whole nest of them in this pine tree out here." Her voice trembles with emotion. "My son was born here, my daughter was raised here, my granddaughter was raised here. It's home. And they're gonna take it from us?"
Company representatives began bullying her, she says. If she didn't accept, they claimed, they'd reduce the price to $7,100. And if she kept on being stubborn, they'd finally take what they needed by eminent domain. But Briggs didn't budge. "It's not a money thing. This is our home. I'm sixty-five years old. And if that pipeline goes through I can't live here."
The Constitution Pipeline would carry shale gas more than 120 miles from Pennsylvania's Susquehanna County through New York's Schoharie County. This would be the first interstate transmission pipeline in the region, and at 30 inches in diameter, a big one. Four corporations—Williams, a Tulsa-based energy infrastructure company, Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas, and WGL Holdings—are the partners. Williams claims the pipeline "is not designed to facilitate natural gas drilling in New York." But it would connect with two others—the Iroquois, running from the Long Island shore to Canada, and the Tennessee, extending from the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast into Pennsylvania's frack fields. This link-up, opponents believe, means that the Constitution would be able to export fracked gas from New York, the only Marcellus state to have resisted drilling so far.
In 2010, a high-pressure pipeline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. It was the same size as the proposed Constitution pipeline. What makes that distant tragedy personal to Briggs is her memory of two local pipeline explosions. In the town of Blenheim, 22 miles east of her home, 10 houses were destroyed in 1990 in what a news report called "a cauldron of fire." Another pipeline erupted in 2004 right in the village of Davenport. From her front porch, Briggs could see the flames that destroyed a house and forced the evacuation of neighbors within a half-mile radius. "That was an 8-inch pipe," she says. "What would a 30-inch gas line do out here?"