Each Other — Where We Are SANDRA STEINGRABER
The Whole Fracking enchilada
Violating the bedrock, the atmosphere, and everything in between
IHAVE COME TO believe that extracting natural gas from shale using the new- ish technique called hydrofracking is
the environmental issue of our time. And
I think you should, too.
Saying so represents two points of
departure for me. One: I primarily study
toxic chemicals, not energy issues. I have,
heretofore, ceded that topic to others, such
as Bill McKibben, with whom I share this
column space in Orion.
Two: I’m on record averring that I
never tell people what to do. If you are a
mother who wants to lead
the charge against vinyl
shower curtains, then you
should. If the most important thing to you is organic
golf courses, then they are. So said I.
But high-volume slick water hydrofrac-turing of shale gas — fracking — is way
bigger than PVC and synthetic fertilizer.
In fact, it makes them both cheaply available. Fracking is linked to every part of the
environmental crisis — from radiation exposure to habitat loss—and contravenes
every principle of environmental thinking. It’s the tornado on the horizon that is
poised to wreck ongoing e=orts to create
green economies, local agriculture, investments in renewable energy, and the ability
to ride your bike along country roads. It’s
worth setting down your fork, pen, cellular phone—whatever instrument you’re
holding — and looking out the window.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS can be
viewed as a tree with two trunks. One
trunk represents what we are doing to the
planet through atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gasses. Follow this
trunk along and you find droughts, floods,
acidification of oceans, dissolving coral
reefs, and species extinctions.
The other trunk represents what we
are doing to ourselves and other animals
through the chemical adulteration of the
planet with inherently toxic synthetic pol-
lutants. Follow this trunk along and you
of coal, but when it escapes into the atmos-
phere as unburned methane, it’s one of
the most powerful greenhouse gases of
them all—twenty times more powerful
than carbon dioxide at trapping heat and
with the stamina to persist nine to fifteen
years. You can also make petrochemicals
from it. Natural gas is the starting point for
anhydrous ammonia (synthetic fertilizer)
and PVC plastic (those shower curtains).
Fracking is linked to every part of the environmental crisis and
contravenes every principle of environmental thinking.
find asthma, infertility, cancer, and male
fish in the Potomac River whose testicles
have eggs inside them.
At the base of both these trunks is an
economic dependency on fossil fuels, primarily coal (plant fossils) and petroleum
(animal fossils). When we light them on
fire, we threaten the global ecosystem.
When we use them as feedstocks for making stu=, we create substances — pesticides,
solvents, plastics—that can tinker with
our subcellular machinery and the various
signaling pathways that make it run.
Natural gas is the vaporous form of pe-
troleum. It’s the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
of fossil fuels: when burned, natural gas
generates only half the greenhouse gases
throughout vast sheets of shale, like a fizz
of bubbles in a petrified spill of cham-
pagne. But that all changed with the rollout
of a drilling technique (pioneered by Halli-
burton) that bores horizontally through the
bedrock, blasts it with explosives, and forces
into the cracks, under enormous pressure,
millions of gallons of water laced with a
proprietary mix of poisonous chemicals
that further fracture the rock. Up the bore-
hole flows the gas. In 2000, only 1 percent
of natural gas was shale gas. Ten years later,
almost 20 percent is.