Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a highly polluting process used to extract oil or natural gas trapped in solid rock underground. Fracking has destroyed water supplies, sickened people and animals, and disrupted life in towns across the U.S. and many other countries. Yet energy companies continue to use the reckless method of fracking in their endless drive for profits.
The methane released from fracking seeps into the water supply and is so concentrated that people can light the gas coming out of their water faucets on fire. Many communities have already reported serious health problems among children, the elderly and farm animals. This whole process poisons the underground water supply, causes cancer, brain damage and birth defects in humans and animals, and can trigger earthquakes. The fracking concoction contains over 600 chemicals that are poisonous and cancerous to the skin, the brain, the lungs, the heart, the stomach – just about every part of the human body. Millions upon millions of gallons of these toxins have been dumped across the country, poisoning communities.
These toxins were never a secret. In 2005, with the help of then-Vice President, Dick Cheney, energy corporations teamed up to change federal laws in order to allow fracking. The Energy Policy Act was passed, exempting fracking from restrictions in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, allowing energy companies to freely poison the water supply without having to comply with any federal restrictions.
In 2013, because of fracking, the U.S. hit a 25-year high for energy production. And the U.S. has currently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer because of the acceleration of fracking across the country. The U.S. plans to use these new energy supplies as further leverage to impose its economic interests around the world.
Fracking is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S., already having spread across fifteen states, from New York to California. The driving force behind this growth is simply the generation of profit. In drought-stricken Texas, the same amount of water it takes to grow $200,000 worth of crops can be used to frack $2.5 billion worth of gas or oil. Fracking methods have already spread to 15 countries around the world as energy companies race for the remaining deposits of oil and natural gas.
In California, energy companies want to open up the Monterey Shale deposits to fracking, an area covering 1,750 square miles. Opening this land up to fracking would destroy the habitat, further poison the air and water, and dump catastrophic levels of carbon into the atmosphere, three times as much carbon emissions as expected from the Canadian tar sands set to supply the Keystone XL pipeline.
People have begun to resist the oil companies’ fracking drive. Moratoriums and bans have been put in place across the U.S., including the states of Vermont and New York, in the cities of Los Angeles, Dallas, and Pittsburgh and internationally in France, Ireland, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Romania and more. But an even bigger fight must be waged to ban fracking completely.
Fracking is truly an insane process, a symptom of an insane system.
What is Fracking?
Fracking is a technique for extracting petroleum and natural gas deposited deep within layers of rock called “shale.” The oil and natural gas that is most often extracted for profit is found in large deposits which are pushed up over millions of years, pooling in reservoirs. But the gas and oil in shale is locked up within the rock itself and dificult to access.
The shale is very deep in the earth – between five and twenty thousand feet deep. In order extract this oil and gas, a massive amount of resources and labor must must be used. The techniques of fracturing, or “fracking”, the rock are not new. The most common technique, hydraulic fracturing, was invented in 1947. The technique is to inject water and flammable liquids, often napalm. When the liquid is ignited, it causes a huge explosion, fracturing the rock. Next, at high pressure, “fracking fluid” is injected, containing enormous amounts of water – two to eight million gallons per well – along with sand and hundreds of chemical additives. This liquid allows the gas to come to the surface while most of the liquid remains in the bedrock.
A well can be fractured up to eighteen times, but it only allows a tiny part of the gas to be extracted. Unlike typical vertical drilling, fracking wells use horizontal drilling which allow gas to be captured from a larger area. And unlike traditional wells, fracking operations run out quickly. Most of the production happens in the first two or three years, and the life span of a fracked well is less than twenty-five years, compared to fifty years for a conventional well.
Overall fracking is an even more intensive, wasteful, and polluting method of extracting oil. It is the cutting edge in ecological destruction, and it shows what lengths the oil and gas companies are willing to go to extract profit at the expense of the planet.
Imperialism and the “Energy Revolution”
Fracking has created a so-called “energy revolution.” The United States is curerntly the world’s largest gas producer, ahead of Russia, and is also the largest oil producer, just ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia – but this could change quickly if Russia or Saudi Arabia chose to produce more oil. Canada became the fifth largest oil producer ever since it began fracking the oil in the tar sands. Because of fracking, large companies are now able to extract coal, gas and oil where it seemed there was little access before. And once again the doomsday of “peak oil” as economists and environmentalists have prophesied for over half a century, has been pushed back to a more or less distant future.
Protectionism and Imperialism
For the capitalists, the question will never be “How to get by without oil?” They are instead asking “Who will benefit from these new sources of fossil fuels?” This requires huge investments but also help from the state. From Bush to Obama, the U.S. governments of the last decades have done everything to reduce their dependence on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This policy was both a way to increase U.S. companies’ control of the international oil market, and a way to overcome the economic crisis of 2008 by increasing the share of profits for U.S. companies thanks to lower energy costs.
Since the oil shock of 1973, exports of oil have been banned in the United States. The benefit of this policy is a significant decrease in the dependence of the United States on energy imported from other countries. But the U.S. has long since allowed the export of products made from refined oil. The strict ban is on crude oil. But now, the Obama administration has authorized the export of condensate, which is oil that is typically extracted from the fracking process, but is slightly refined, and thereby exempted from the oil export ban. This measure has both commercial and political goals. As recently summarized by a former senior U.S. official: “During World War II, we were the arsenal of democracy; I think we will become the arsenal of energy.” The export of oil from condensate began precisely at the time the civil wars in Iraq and Syria threatened oil production in the Middle East. Oil and gas are important tools in U.S. imperial strategy. And soon the U.S. may decide to lift the ban on exporting oil
altogether, only increasing its ability to use energy exports as a way to carry out its foreign policy needs.
Shale Gas Against Russian Gas?
Fracking has intensified the international competition for energy resources around the world. In Ukraine last year, former President Viktor Yanukovych authorized Shell and Chevron to exploit oil and gas deposits in the Ukraine. And in November 2013, EDF (a French Nuclear Power company) and an Italian company, ENI, signed a joint agreement to extract oil and natural gas off the coast of Crimea, which was still part of Ukraine at that time. Ukraine imports 80 percent of its gas from Russia, and this move was enough to annoy Putin. Putin all of a sudden pretended to be concerned about the environment and asked Yanukovych to reduce the “environmental risks” of exploiting deposits close to the Russian border. Putin pushed Yanukovych to cancel Ukraine’s agreements with the European Union, promising that Russia would provide lower gas prices and a loan of fifteen billion dollars. Yanukovych’s cancellation of the agreement was the starting point of the revolt of the Maidan, the group that led to the overthrow of his administration.
With the Ukrainian crisis in full swing, on May 21, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a four hundred billion dollar agreement to supply China with gas for the next thirty years. This was one way to give a warning to European customers. As Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put it, “If we look at the worst case scenario, purely theoretically, the gas that would be delivered to Europe can be sent to China.” And Russia has the world’s largest supply of raw shale oil. Last summer, Gazprom (the world’s largest gas company, based in Russia) signed an agreement with Halliburton (the American multinational that specializes in hydraulic fracturing) for fracking in Western Siberia. And in December, the Russian Rosneft Trust embarked on the exploration of the deposits in the Volga River (which runs through Russia to the Caspian Sea).
Fracking is a gigantic rat race pitting international corporations and the states that serve them against one another. There is nothing revolutionary in this energy revolution – just a new situation in the world balance of power.
The Sick Impact of Fracking
In the film Promised Land, Matt Damon stars as the agent of a gas company, trying to convince the inhabitants of a small rural town in crisis to sell their mineral rights, promising “you could be a millionaire.” Like in the film, in numerous rural regions of the U.S., the development of fracking appears like the promise of a new American dream. An estimated 600,000 jobs today are linked directly or indirectly to fracking. But what is the reality hiding under these figures that serve as propaganda for the gas and oil companies?
Boom Towns in a Busted Economy
When the manufacturers show up, first they have to buy or rent the right to exploit the land from the property owners. According to U.S. law, land owners possess rights to what’s below their property, all the way down to the center of the Earth. The henchmen working for the companies will stop at nothing to buy up those rights using intimidation, lobbying and corruption of local authorities. Next, things happen very fast. If not a single well is built in three years, they have to renegotiate the rent at market price, which never ceases to go up. As a consequence, the companies have every interest in exploiting each plot very quickly. Wells are constructed and pushed to produce at an incredible pace.
The speed of this industrial development is like Europe in the 19th century or China today. Work accidents on gas and oil platforms are frequent. According to an investigative report by Vice magazine, fracking workers have 7.6 times more chance of losing their life than in the rest of the industry. They often do twelve hour shifts, and while it requires two or three people to run a standard platform, many are run with only one or two workers. Some people rely on methamphetamines to stay awake and alert. In rural Colorado, where a lot of wells are located, the consumption of meth is almost double the national average.
Populations of small towns have mushroomed, creating boom towns. For example, the small town of Williston, North Dakota, the population has more than doubled in ten years, and unemployment has dipped below one percent. With the boom in employment, wages have risen dramatically. For example, one journalist met a truck driver making $100 per hour – for a one hundred hour work week! But for these workers, the prices of life’s necessities have soared as well. For a simple room in town, it costs $3,000 per month.
Fracking has made North Dakota an island of growth in a country in crisis since the financial crash of 2008. Unemployed workers come from all over the country to work there. According to a pastor in Williston, “the new arrivals have all the same goals: save their house from foreclosure, save their family, or scrap their past altogether and start over.” This overexploited working class, of primarily men, is prone to drug and alcohol addiction. And North Dakota has seen increased prostitution, and violent crime.
A Poisonous Bargain
The environmental and health consequences of fracking are well-known: the image of tap water that lights on fire in the film Gasland made its way around the world. In drinking water, incredible levels of methane can be found, but also chemical products that are part of fracking fluid, heavy metals, and even radioactive products. Certain chemical products (benzene, fluoride) can cause cancer or brain damage. Numerous domestic animals have died close to wells. To avoid lawsuits, some companies have paid for bottled water for residents near gas platforms at the same time as they deny that any contamination exists. With each well requiring more than two million gallons of water to operate, the waste is all the more staggering in desert regions like Texas.
The air is polluted as a result of methane fumes around gas wells and from waste gas burned directly at the exit of the oil wells. Add to all of this the coming and going of trucks around the platforms. As mentioned in the film Gasland, for a single well, from initial boring to the fracturing itself, it requires 1,150 truck trips to transport fracking fluid, used water, gas and oil. And fracking can cause earthquakes. Youngstown, Colorado had never had an earthquake since 1776, the year of the American Revolution. But it has had 109 since the 2010 installation of a fracking well.
Sorry For For Your Loss, Enjoy the Pizza
The scope of damages caused by fracking has provoked a great deal of anger on the part of the population, especially due to the callous attitude of the oil companies. When a Chevron well in Pennsylvania exploded last February, causing one worker’s death as well as causing the well to burn for a week, the company’s idea of an apology was to offer all of the neighboring town’s residents a voucher for “a large pizza and a two-liter beverage.”
Some have attacked the gas companies by threatening lawsuits. To avoid going to court, the companies have paid for silence in the form of gag orders. In 2010, when a family sued a gas company for contaminating their drinking water, they negotiated for $750,000 and an agreement not to speak publicly about shale gas and its exploitation. They tried to extend this “clause of silence” to the children, ages seven and ten. Last April, a Texas family won its trial against an oil company, winning three million dollars in compensation for damages to their health and the health of their animals.
The opposition to fracking is not limited to residents. In fact, Yoko Ono gave anti-fracking activists a media platform by gathering two hundred musicians and stars, from Lady Gaga to Alec Baldwin, in an event called, Don’t Frack Our Mother. Demonstrations bring together not only activists and environmentalists, but a lot of young people revolted by the consequences of fracking. Because of popular pressure, measures restraining or banning fracking have multiplied at state and local levels.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The damages caused by fracking are not a novelty in the history of capitalism. Recently, in 2010 an oil platform owned by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. More than 800,000 liters of oil spilled into the ocean; the immediate consequences were already catastrophic, and little is known about long-term consequences. Also the method of extracting coal in the Appalachians certainly equals the dangerousness of fracking: the technique employed consists, plain and simple, of blowing off the tops of mountains to expose the coal seams to the open air. There too, water pollution reaches levels that are beyond alarming, and contributes to specific diseases related to coal extraction. And then of course there’s the incredible risks tied to nuclear power.
What is unique about fracking is its extent and its consequences – thus its damages – and the fashion in which it is redesigning a part of the American economy and society. This is also what has created a large scale of protest. And could the rapid development of the working class in regions opened to the exploitation of gas and oil open the way for new resistance? The workers and the entire population are certainly suffering at the mercy of the oil companies. This is a struggle which raises a serious question – What right do the oil companies have to control natural resources when every choice they make poisons people and destroys the environment?