July 12, 2011

Global Action Lived Locally: A Case Study from the United States of America

As you are probably aware by now MIA Global Action is working on the two issues of Cosmology/Environment and Human Trafficking. At this time we are particularly interested in focusing on work of Mercy on these two particular themes. Next year when we have established working groups linking the work of Mercy Congregations, Institutes and Federations on these two issues we will move on to take up other themes of Mercy Ministry.

To-day in E News we are focusing on the work of Sisters of Mercy in the New York, Pennsylvania and Pacific West Community who have been working to support communities affected by hydrofracking which is causing massive environmental damage in the three states. In March/April 2011, the sisters and other environmental lobbyists collected signed letters at community meetings and mailed them to legislators to inform them of their opposition.

What is hydrofracking?

Oil and gas extraction

Although natural gas is a clean burning fuel, much natural gas is trapped in deeply buried shale rock formations, and can only be tapped with special drilling practices. Oil and gas companies are using a controversial method that involves blasting millions of gallons of chemically-treated water into the earth to extract gas from underground deposits. This process is putting the drinking water supplies for millions of Americans at risk. Extracting gas requires immense consumption of energy and water, and building the well structures causes degradation of air and water quality, stripping of forests and agricultural lands, increased noise and traffic, and wear on roads and bridges already poorly maintained. Thanks to a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, oil and gas companies don’t have to report what chemicals they are shooting into the ground. These companies also get special treatment under the Clean Air Act – and now drilling areas in Wyoming have worse smog than Los Angeles!

Here are some facts about hydraulic fracturing from The Bay Ridge Journal in the U.S.A. on 1/1/11:

  1. It takes three years of intensive 24/7 industrial development -- all-night noise, lights, traffic -- to prepare a drilling pad.
  2. The amount of gas the Northeast's Marcellus Shale could yield over the next 50 years is about equal to what the US consumes in 3 years.
  3. Hydrofracked gas will be expensive. It would have to sell for $8 per unit to be economically viable. Gas currently costs around $4 per unit. Customers will bear the difference.
  4. Even assuming the price of gas doubles, fracking still isn't economical. It's capital intensive and the wells produce less and less after the first year. That's a lot of investment for a very short profit window. But that window is why Chesapeake is in the game: what happens when it closes will be our problem.
  5. Every hydrofracked well takes an estimated 5.5 million gallons of fresh water.
  6. Fracking fluid makes up about 27,599 gallons of that 5.5 million gallons, which includes sand; a jelling agent to suspend the sand in the water; biocides to kill the bacteria in the gelling agent; breaking agents to thin the thickened water after the gas release and improve "flowback;" fluid-loss additives to decrease "leak-off" into rock; anti-corrosives to protect metal; and friction reducers to improve pressure and flow rates.
  7. Fracking fluid cannot be re-used.
  8. Fracking fluid has to be pumped through the level where the aquifer -- our drinking water -- is to get to the shale gas, and the gas has to be brought back up through the level where the aquifer is. The concrete well casings can crack and leak at any depth.
  9. We really don't know very much about how fracking fluids migrate underground.
  10. "Flowback" fracking fluid, which comes back up with the gas, is stored on the surface in lagoons. It often contains heavy metals, salts and radioactive material from drilling through layers of radon-bearing granite and other layers. The liners of flowback fluid lagoons sometimes fail, contaminating the ground.
  11. In Pennsylvania, where the hydrofracking industry has been at it for several years now, there are numerous instances of polluted wells and undrinkable water -- and landowners are beginning to file lawsuits against the drillers. 

What can be done to restrict Hydrofracking?

The oil and gas industries have spent millions to induce legislators to allow drilling wells. Pennsylvania already has many gas wells installed; New York has had a moratorium until the Department of Environmental Conservation can complete a study. The lure for legislators is the claim of the companies that they will provide more jobs for an area very hard hit by unemployment. In reality, many workers are brought in from elsewhere with the needed specific skills and experience. Another lure is the income landowners receive from gas leases.

As a result of campaigning by Environmental groups (including the Sisters of Mercy)
two bills have just been introduced in Congress which would eliminate oil and gas industry loopholes that put our clean water and air at risk.

The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act would close oil and gas industry loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act and require disclosure of chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing.

If regulators know what chemicals to look for when they test drinking water, they can hold oil and gas companies accountable for their pollution. That’s why it’s crucial that oil and gas companies come out of the shadows and tell us what chemicals they’re shooting into the ground.

The Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects (BREATHE) Act would eliminate an unfair loophole in the Clean Air Act for oil and gas companies.

Right now, many oil and gas wells fall squarely within a loophole in the Clean Air Act that means they don’t have to control their air pollution as carefully as larger industrial sources – even though the cumulative air pollution from all of these thousands of wells are far greater than individual ‘major sources.’

Readers in the USA can lobby their local Congress representatives to support these bills.

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