Posted by: coastlinesproject | January 18, 2013

Fracking, another look at this debate.

Thank You for Fracking

There’s a gold rush going on right now. Man is breaking the earth, looking for natural gas — just as we always have. It’s a mad scene, with hucksters on every side of the issue. And that’s just on the surface. You won’t believe what’s happening underground.


Curt Coccodrilli

Chris Buck

Curt Coccodrilli, right, and his brother Chuck, on land that was once their great-grandfather’s. They want to frack, but it’s illegal in their area. Curt used to work with Bonnie Raitt — hence the T-shirt — but she fired him because of his support of fracking.

Curt Coccodrilli is a fourth-generation citizen of the Delaware River Basin, maker of homemade sausage, hunter, forty-seven-year-old father to a new baby, and a guy who just wants to frack what he owns. He lives in a big house, well tended, built by his father on land bought by his great-grandfather. There’s a large pond, or small lake, below the garage he takes me to after we drive to his land. His ancient dog follows. One of his three remaining free-range chickens steps aside to let us pass. “The chickens don’t last long out here,” he says. “But they try. She lays eggs in all the high places she can get to.”

Coccodrilli wants to show me a picture of his father, who once owned this land that Curt wants to lease to Hess Corporation for the purposes of fracking. And a picture of his grandfather, who was a coal miner and labor organizer the generation before. After that he wants to take me to that land, to walk the swath of power lines that cuts across it thanks to eminent domain, paying him nothing. He wants to point to the wind farm in the distance, once the largest in Pennsylvania, and note the proximity to an anthracite coal mine, the kind that dot the land across the region. “The power lines are a fact of life for me,” he says. “I accept them. They’re on my land, but the power company sprays like crazy to keep the growth down, and that just means all kinds of poison on my land that I have no control over. They can do what they need to, on my land, but I can’t do what I want. I own the land, and the real point is I own what’s beneath it. But I can’t frack it, just because the question is on everyone’s radar.” He rocks on the balls of his feet and squints at the distance a lot, a big man who looks like he might tip over at times.

“This is energy country,” he says. “We’ve been through this before, more than a few times. I mean, coal. Come on. My people made it on coal, and I know there was some real cost to that. There still is. My family knows that. The land shows it.”

He stands in the garage, puts his finger on the image of his grandfather standing amongst rows of miners in a black-and-white company photograph. “He was a labor organizer,” Coccodrilli says. “He had some fight in him.” Otherwise the garage is a museum of hunting trophies and concert souvenirs from Coccodrilli’s business career as a producer of promotional material for rock tours. The walls are layered in dozens of signed posters, napkins, photographs filled with thanks and good wishes from Carlos Santana and Lyle Lovett and Bonnie Raitt.

“Bonnie stopped working with me because of fracking,” he says. “Apparently she saw where I was arguing land rights in the paper. Or she became aware of it. Next thing I know, I get a letter from her manager, saying they can’t work with me anymore because I’m an advocate of fracking. Freaking Bonnie Raitt, you know?” He fastens his lips tightly and shakes his head, stung even now, though he shrugged it off months ago. “But here I am, a private citizen, arguing for the use of my land in a public hearing,” he says. “I own those mineral rights. Nobody cared when they were no use to me.” He holds his palms out and up. What can he do?

Later, in the kitchen, his brother Chuck, wheelchair bound and recovering from a fever, tells me, “The question goes beyond use. Use is merely necessity. I believe the real use of this gas is to keep us from sending our children to war for oil.”

Cabot has had a picnic for the community for the last three years. The parking lot is a green field facing a range of hillocks called the Endless Mountains. In the midmorning they are blue, by late afternoon dark green. In between, the parking field slowly fills, trucks mostly, from which entire families climb, limbs unfolding like children’s strollers in the firm grass. Cliques of people converge on the picnic site as if in slow motion.

Depending on your perspective, the event is either a chance to ask frequently asked questions directly to the engineers and scientists who work for Cabot and their contractors, or it’s a county fair built on greed. There’s no music: The place is too chatty. There’s a serviceable set of children’s games — balls, circles, targets — but most everyone cruises right past them. The primary tent is set up with displays of each stage of the operation, with Cabot men and women stationed there, pressing everyone to ask every question they have. How will you protect my wells? What happens when the well is finished? How thick are these casings? How deep do they run? The cheery staff of scientists and contracting supervisors gives out tectonics lessons, statistics, geological maps, fragments of the Marcellus, nuggets of fool’s gold, pocketknives, beer cozies, key chains, mesh hats. They are drunk with explanations. Visit every station, glance at every stage of the process, and they stamp your entry for a giveaway for a bike.

Everyone there — and there are no protesters in sight — pretty much wants to know their end. When do you start on my land? What can I expect from the drill site near my place? When do you rebuild my road? People want to know how it works. For them. They want to know when it starts. For them. Because for them, those who own the land that holds the gas, all of this feels inevitable. The gas is under here. So get it out.

A completed well site, after the frack, looks pretty much like what it is: a small utility installation set in the middle of a meadow. There’s a chain-link fence, and warning signs, and a gravel access road. The hissing sound of gas being collected and sent to the connected pipeline is audible at a hundred yards. Industry literature says that a completed well site takes up about two acres of land, though it’s hard to make that much out. The industry likes to point out how much the site shrinks, and in this regard, anyway, it is not exaggerating.

Still, you could say it looks like shit out here on the landscape — the steel, the well caps, the meters, the pipes, the gravel pad, all of it projecting into the natural world — and you’d be in the right. We love old barns, deserted, crumbling, unpainted bastions of industry from another era, but we’ll never look at well sites as anything but a heavy industrial trespass.

These wells proceed vertically past the groundwater and beneath the brine water below that. This part of the operation, the vertical shaft, features several layers of steel and cement. The shaft then makes the long, slow right turn into the shale bed, 2 or 3 degrees at a time.

Once the drill shaft is finished, the fracker works in two-hundred-foot stages from the end of the pipe backward. The fracking fluid is forced into the line with the help of surfactant (dish soap!), then through holes in the casing. Cracks form in the surrounding shale, and sand slides in to keep the fractures open so the gas can escape. A biocide in the water (your chlorine) keeps bacteria from growing into the cracks, and whatever gas is present pushes the fracking fluid back up. This is called flowback. Typically 20 percent of the original injection is collected in the first two weeks of fracking. Depending on your source, another 20 percent of the remaining fluid may return to the surface during the life of the well in the form of vapor or droplets. This leaves around 60 percent of the original fluid underground, an amount that may, depending on the length of the well, top three million gallons.

The capture and disposal of flowback is the essential element of a safe well site. “The biggest issue with fracking fluid is the contamination from spills at the surface,” says Sam Gowan, recent past president of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. What comes back up with the used fluid is most worrisome. Heavy metals such as barium, radium, and arsenic are often present, as are other toxic compounds such as benzene. Now, this stuff is nothing like pool water. More like poison mud. “The biggest danger is the corrosive salt in that water. A tanker spill that got into the groundwater could ruin a well for a considerable period of time. Half a generation or more.”

What about the fluid itself? Are the chemicals present at levels high enough to be a danger? Gowan doesn’t think so. “These are very diluted presences.” Would he drink a glass of it? He pauses. “No, I don’t suppose I would. But I wouldn’t drink pool water, either. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop swimming.”

Still, what’s ugliest about flowback is not so much where it comes from as where it goes. Although Cabot is working locally to recycle and reuse the fluid, disposing of the heavy metals, much of the industry still uses underground injection wells to push the used — treated, yes, but still used — fracking fluid back into the ground. It sounds pretty awful: pull poison from the ground in one state, try to clean it up a little, inject it back into the ground in another. But it is legal. It is age-old.

And fracking fluid is hardly the first poison to be injected into the earth. It’s a mere fraction of the total. There are more than 600,000 EPA-monitored injection wells in the U. S., about 170,000 of which are classified to store flowback. Injection wells have been used since the 1930s to push industrial waste to depths of 8,000 feet or more. These wells have been used to inject more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic waste into the earth: acid wastewaters, airport deicing fluids, ammonia, caustic wastewaters, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, brines, salt solutions, chemical manufacturing wastewaters, metal plating and galvanizing solutions, waste pickle-liquor acids, and more. If the operator of a well runs it with the pressure too high, or the volume of injection too high, or if he has the bad luck to be drilling into a weak fault line, seismic activity is sometimes triggered. So while it is plenty fair to question what and how much we push deep underground with the approval of the federal government (and a few groups are beginning to), it is highly inaccurate to suggest, as some have, that a poorly run injection-well process involving fracking flowback is evidence that “fracking causes earthquakes.”

Injection wells caused those earthquakes. And to keep going the way we have been, whether we frack or not — but especially if we do — we’re going to keep building injection wells. Sucks.

Like it or not, these wells are the last ticks of the hammering pulse of a market that begins in my house, in my kitchen, with the clicking pilot of the faulty center burner on my overpriced DeLonghi stove. I’m a user. A burner. This I know. We all are.

You will get fracked. You have been fracked. You will be fracked again.

We break the earth. For energy, for water, for resources. Coal. Oil. Gas. Silver. Gold. Salt. Even chalk. We break the earth for all of these things. We always have.

You can fight it. But righteous insistence never wins out over discovery and invention. As applied in the Marcellus Shale, gas fracking represents both. The hunger for burnable energy hasn’t decreased significantly. That hunger will push the technique forward, the practice northward, where it will be examined again. That examination will lead not to the banning of gas fracking but to its improvement.

It will happen under your feet, if not under your land. Extraction techniques will continue to improve. A discovery like the Marcellus opens up smaller shale beds all over the world for more and safer fracking techniques. The fact of spills, the likelihood of accidents, and the cost of disposal are simply that — facts, likelihood, costs. These too have happened, and will happen again. Teenagers dump used motor oil directly into the dirt behind the garage. Homeowners pour gallons of bleach into their wells to “shock” them. Tenant farmers drain used heating oil into creeks. Oil companies have done worse. Our negligence as human beings does not mean that negligence must, or will, win out.

We will break the earth to save ourselves. We always have.

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