FRACKING WAS, in fact, my first introduction to deep life. While poking around on
gas industry websites late one night, I found
a pastel-colored pie chart that showed the
relative proportion of each category of
chemicals that made up fracking fluid. Pale
blue, labeled water, filled nearly the whole
circle. Friction reducers, gelling agents,
and acids were all slim triangles. And then
there was the wedge labeled biocides. It was
a vanishingly thin slice—.001 percent of
total volume. But, with 5 to 9 million gallons
of fluid required for a single frack job, that
must mean that fifty to ninety gallons — a
couple of bathtubs full—of pure poison
are poured down every wellhead and
forced into the fractured shale. Why?
Because bedrock is alive with microflora.
And because the fresh water forced down the
hole is often drawn from lakes and streams,
which also bloom with life.
Well, that’s not how the website put it.
The problem for which biocides are the solution is called bio-fouling. A mile below the
Earth’s surface, where temperatures are
warm, microbes can feed on the fracking
gels, sheathe the pipes, and interfere with
the flow of gas. The word slime appeared a
couple times in the reference to biocides.
That caught my attention. Any organism
referred to as slime by the oil and gas industry was interesting to me.
So I went to Wyoming. More specifi-
cally, I went to the geyser basins within
Yellowstone National Park where one can
see up close the kind of organisms that
first intrigued Dr. V. Issatchenko in the oil
fields of Azerbaijan. Yellowstone contains
one of the planet’s thirty confirmed “hot
spots,” where magma lies just a few thou-
sand yards below the sizzling surface and
where steaming vents, bubbling mud pots,
and boiling acid pools re-create conditions
more typically found many miles closer
to the center of the Earth. And so you can
wander for miles along the boardwalks like
Orpheus in the underworld—or a char-
acter out of Jules Verne—gazing out at a
sulfurous landscape of fire and brimstone.
I TURN NOW to ask a favor of my fellow
writers who work in the oil and gas industry.
Before you head o= to draft a statement
accusing environmentalists of caring more
Dubbed “Worms from hell,” Halicephalobus mephisto was discovered 1. 3 kilometers below the arth’s surface in a south african gold mine.
about the rights of underworld slime than
job creation and energy independence—
referencing this essay as exhibit A — I’d like
answers to three questions.
As a cancer patient, my fate sometimes hangs on the results of lab tests
that employ polymerase chain reactions,
as, for example, whenever abnormal cells
are found in my urine and their chromosomes need to be examined for possible
mutations. So, my attitude toward deep
life trends toward gratitude and respect.
That extends to any form of life sequestering arsenic in its DNA or that is capable of
mobilizing radioactive isotopes.
What is your attitude?
Second, what can you tell us about how
deep life shapes global element cycles and
therefore our climate?
Lastly, can you provide an example of
an ecosystem on which was laid down a
barrage of poisons, and terrible and unexpected consequences for human beings
were not the result? A
Sandra Steingraber is the recipient of a 2011
Heinz Award. She is devoting the prize
money to the fight against fracking in New