What the Frack is going on?

A cartoon from the 1990’s called Captain Planet and the Planeteers showed a merry band of eco-warriors traveling to exotic locations while saving us all from greedy, evil corporations bent on destroying the world.  Of course, they had a theme song: ‘We’re Planeteers / you can be one too! / ‘Cause saving the planet is the thing to do! / Looting and polluting is not the way! Hear what Captain Planet has to say!’ And then Captain Planet ends with: “The Power is Yours!”  

Growing up in the 90’s Captain Planet was one of my favorite cartoons.  I couldn’t wait to get home from school and watch the Planeteers fight for Mother Earth.  I wanted to be a Planeteer, travel the world, and preserve our environment for generations to come.  Nowadays, I’ll admit, I’m not much of an environmentalist.  My youthful idealism gave way to more adult comforts like driving a car that burns gas like a fish drinks water, running the hot water in the winter to make sure my shower is nice and warm, and recycling’s a chore. All these comforts are made possible from a different sort of power than what Captain Planet had in mind: power generated by fossil fuels. As much I love the comforts of life at the expense of Mother Earth, I couldn’t help but think of Captain Planet and how I wanted to be a Planeteer when I started reading about hydrofracking.

So, what is hydrofracking? Hydraulic fracturing is a process that extracts natural gas by using drillers to pump a slurry (water mixed with sand and chemicals) under high pressure into bedrock laced with fossil fuels. Why do this and not just drill for natural gas like we’ve been doing for years? As the figure shows, the fracking wellbore gets at fossil fuels not yet released into a natural reservoir, “liberating” them from the underlying bedrock. Fracking offers a way of producing the fossil fuels we all use to power our homes and hot water heaters from previously unexploitable fields, employing workers and pouring money into to areas of the country with dwindling or few economic prospects.

One of these regions is in New York’s Southern Tier. From Cattaragus County all the way east to Delaware County, these counties lay on the northern edge of the Pennsylvania Oil Field (the Marcellus Formation, for the rockhounds among us), and they’ve all struggled as manufacturing jobs have moved overseas and agriculture has lost it’s former prominence. Now with fracking these struggling counties find out they’re sitting on exploitable reserves of natural gas that could fuel the hot water heaters and powerplants of the Northeast for decades to come. Eureka!

And companies are making like Daddy Warbucks while lining up to plead their case in communities all along the Southern Tier, telling us the fracking process is safe, and promising loads of good-paying jobs and economic development that will reinvigorate the region. Elected officials hear this and start making grand plans for schools and motorways (which will need to be named after somebody), town elders hear this and start thinking about stores opening instead of closing on Main Street, and parents hear this and think “Finally, my kids don’t need to move to Buffalo or New York to get a good paying job!”

There’s a cost to this type of drilling beyond what we see at on our utility bills. That slurry used to fracture the rock and coat the wellbore contains a list of noxious and in some cases carcinogenic chemicals like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and acetone, and it sometimes contains sand emitting low levels of radiation so the drilling company can track the drilling process. This slurry can seep upward through the fractured rock, taking along with it natural gas escaping from the partially fractured rock and improperly sealed wellbore, until these compounds contaminate the groundwater supply. This leads to something I’d expect to see in a cartoon like Captain Planet: Flammable Water.

States where they’re already doing this kind of extraction, like Colorado and next door in Pennsylvania, are dealing with high levels of arsenic in water pulled from wells located near this fracking process. Families that have permitted these drilling companies to exploit their land’s natural resources have had to start using water purification kits so they can drink the water pumped from their own wells. Every state that’s permitted hydrofracking has experienced some level of environmental degradation, and had to deal with the health effects of citizens poisoned by this drilling process.

It’s not Daddy Warbucks promising us jobs and development by fracking our land. It’s Hoggish Greedily and his henchman Rigger who are storming into town, selling us a pipe dream built on a foundation of (radioactive) sand. They’ll leave our communities uninhabitable and destitute once they’re done exploiting the land beneath our feet.

There are alternatives. We live in a world where scientists can generate sustainable energy from the sun, the wind, the water, and the tides. We don’t need to pollute our water and make our neighbors sick so we can have hot water in the Winter. New York State has the opportunity to do the right thing by developing technology and renewable energy resources that work for the Southern Tier, the Capital Region, and the whole of the Northeast United States, and we can tell tell Hoggish, Rigger, and all the rest of the oil and gas companies “No FRACKING WAY!”

This will take community action and perseverence in the face of oil and gas companies more interested in their bottom line than they are in the health of our citizens and of of our land, but like Captain Planet said: “The Power is Yours!”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to empty my recycling bin.

Harold Miller is Upstate Director at NYCC.  He has been organizing 8 years, and is responsible for NYCC Capital Region Chapter, State Politics, and all things NYCC Upstate.  He graduated from Ithaca College in 2003 with a degree in History, BA, and wishes he recycled more.

*** This post first appeared on NYCC’s Capital Region Blog.

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