Fracking the Ocean

"What astonishes me about this is that we have done it all before. It is not new news. We have polluted the earth; we have polluted the air; and now, we are repeating exactly the same rationale to justify this initiative and polluting our water, fresh and salt. It makes no sense."  ~ Peter Neill

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Hydraulic fracturing, a new process to extract natural gas from heretofore inaccessible reserves in shale deposits mostly inland, is the energy industry’s newest technology for augmenting fossil fuel reserves to meet national and international demand. Called “fracking,” the process, reportedly developed by Halliburton and promoted by the predictable corporations and their lobbyists, is seen by some as the financial salvation of the industry and its future supply and by others as yet another egregious, short-term assault on the nation’s environment with serious detrimental consequences for human health and the support of developing energy alternatives. Fracking is in use in over thirty states in the US and is also being investigated for use in Africa and elsewhere. It has been utilized for almost ten years in some areas and the outcomes beyond gas collected have become better known to neighbors, communities, and in the press, fueling what is now a fervid debate about its practice. It was legalized recently in Pennsylvania, and New York is grappling with the issue now with a decision forthcoming in the near future.

What does fracking have to do with the ocean?

First, studies have estimated that some 4 to 7 percent of the gas that flows up the wells escapes as methane into the atmosphere. Multiply that by thousands of projects and you have yet another measurable negative contribution of toxic emissions to deteriorating air quality with further impact as increased acidification, diminished ozone protection, global warming, and changing climate conditions, the very same factors that were are trying to identify to relieve us of the consequence of our dependence on oil. The water cycle guarantees that much of that consequence finds its way directly and indirectly to the ocean, the marine food chain, the depleted reefs, the red tides, the closed beaches. It is only a matter of time and concentration before those consequences find their way into our drinking water, our food, and our bodies.

Further, fracking uses enormous amounts of fresh water, some six to eight million gallon per instance, water that is admixed with chemical additives including diesel fuel, biocides, industrial solvents, hydrochloric acid, and radioactive elements that are intensely harmful to humans at very low levels of exposure. That toxicity is injected into the water table, must be extracted and stored either deep underground or in effluent evaporation pits, and cannot be further leaked lest it contaminate the soil, groundwater, and water supply in the surrounding areas. The companies are reluctant to reveal either the nature or amounts of these chemicals in detail, certainly not reassuring to those who already experience the results. There are documented examples of violations of the Clean Water Act, EPA regulations, corrupted aquifers, polluted ponds and streams, tap water ignitable at the spigot, localized health problems, and underground reservoirs (where the companies have stored the untreatable waste water) broken open by natural tremors and minor quakes.

What is most important to understand here is that all that poisoned water is removed from the finite supply on earth that is already at the limits of consumption and sustainability.

It becomes stunningly clear when the impacts are scaled up to the reality of demand. Researchers have found that between 2005 and 2009 over 866 millions gallons of freshwater were mixed with some 750 chemicals, including lead and benzene, the full inventory of which is undisclosed by the companies to protect proprietary or trade secrets. Moreover, the present fracking push in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York is focused on the nation’s largest unfiltered fresh water supply, the Delaware River Watershed, serving more than 15 million people in that east coast megalopolis. Remember: that watershed, if poisoned, leads directly to the sea.

What astonishes me about this is that we have done it all before. The past 50 years have revealed where the trade-offs lie. It is not new news. We have polluted the earth; we have polluted the air; and now, we are repeating exactly the same rationale to justify this initiative and polluting our water, fresh and salt. It makes no sense. But the farmers are selling their land to the highest bidder, moving on to somewhere. The politicians are selling our resources to the largest contributor, unaccountable, and caring less. We just let it happen, helpless, disinterested, accepting the consequence.

I keep thinking of Rachael Carson. Silent Spring. The Sea Around Us.  She sounded the clarion call for earth and ocean decades ago. We listened but we did not hear. And so it goes, beyond pathos.


Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.