Swimming in Natural Gas: The Greenwashing of an Industry

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Earth Island Journal

Swimming in Natural Gas: The Greenwashing of an Industry

by
Adam Federman

Natural gas has been championed by oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens, who happens to own Cabot and Warren Buffett, the oracle himself. At the inauguration of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus in October, Pickens, the keynote speaker, declared, “We are swimming in natural gas.” (photo by flickr user jurvetson)

There has never been a better moment for natural gas. It is
the “other” fossil fuel, touted as a clean alternative to coal and oil. It may
be non-renewable, proponents argue, but it is a bridge or transition fuel to a
happier future. Not surprisingly, the industry has gone to great lengths to
persuade local residents, members of congress, and the public at large that
there’s nothing to worry about. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, one of the major
players drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from
New York to Tennessee, has successfully billed itself as an environmentally
friendly operation.

So when Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston based energy company,
was fined for several hydraulic fracturing fluid spills in northeastern
Pennsylvania last year, Chesapeake took the opportunity to distance itself from
what had become an embarrassing situation. In addition to the frack fluid
spills, there were numerous reports of contaminated drinking water wells in
Dimock, PA. On New Year’s Day 2009, a resident’s drinking water well exploded,
ripping apart an eight by eight foot slab of concrete. The Dimock experience
had the potential to become an industry nightmare, perhaps even derailing
efforts to drill in New York State. "Certainly, when an operation isn't
meeting the regulations laid out by the state, it doesn't reflect well on the
industry," Chesapeake’s director of corporate development for the
company’s eastern division told a group of executives at an event in November.

The natural gas industry has had little trouble attracting
powerful and influential boosters. It has been championed by oil and gas
executive T. Boone Pickens, who happens to own Cabot and Warren Buffett, the
oracle himself. At the inauguration of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus in
October, Pickens, the keynote speaker, declared, “We are swimming in natural
gas.” Residents of Dimock, many of whom have sued Cabot for poisoning their
water, may take a slightly different view of natural gas’s potential. In
December, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued a
consent order requiring that the company provide clean water or filtration
devices to 13 families within a nine-square -mile area. They also slapped them
with a $120,000 fine.

More recently, according to the Wall Street Journal,
Chesapeake’s chief executive, Aubrey McClendon, has been touring the country
alongside the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope trumpeting the benefits of natural gas.
Its biggest selling point is that it burns cleaner than coal and oil, though
the impact of extracting it from deep shale formations is highly controversial.
It also requires the use of large amounts of diesel fuel to keep compressors
and other machinery operating 24/7. Responding to criticism from local
affiliates, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania, Pope asked, “Will the
20% of the membership that happens to live in places where drilling is
happening be unhappy? I'm sure that's true." So much for grassroots
organizing.

In early December I drove through Bradford County, PA and
stopped in Towanda, the county seat. The small town of about 3,000 people,
located on the Susquehanna River, is humming with activity. The Towanda Motel,
on the northern edge of town, has been entirely occupied by Chesapeake
employees since April. No Vacancy signs hang from the office window and a
security guard keeps watch over the premises. The company’s fleet of shiny
white pick-ups and SUVs can be seen everywhere, harbingers of what seems to be
a very important mission. Nearly everyone I met had leased their land, from the
young man who owned the Victorian Charm Inn where I stayed to the woman who
worked in the county clerk’s office (open late now on Tuesdays and Thursdays to
accommodate “abstracters,” company reps who comb through deeds going back to
the early 19th century to find out if there might be any obstacles
to acquiring mineral rights from local landowners). When I asked the owner of a
local diner if things had improved in Towanda since Chesapeake came to town she
replied curtly, “Sometimes.” Meanwhile, Chesapeake has opened a regional office
in what was once an Ames Department Store on the south side of town.

On my way through I picked up a copy of the local paper, The
Daily Review. Chesapeake had taken out a full page ad on the subject of
hydraulic fracturing, describing the process as one that “pumps a pressurized
mixture of 99.5% sand and water with a small amount of special purpose
additives,” into a well bore to shatter the rock and release the gas. The ad goes
on to note that, “The additives…include compounds found in common household
products.” They fail to acknowledge, however, that the fracking formula, which
varies from well to well depending on the geology of the region, is considered
proprietary and we still do not fully know what is being pumped underground.
The industry, which has been exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean
Water Act, Clean Air Act, and CERCLA since 2005, has never been forced to
publicly disclose the contents of the fluids it uses to fracture wells. The
so-called Halliburton Loophole, inserted into the 2005 energy bill, was a gift
of the Bush-Cheney administration (Halliburton invented the process of
hydraulic fracturing), and essentially said that the EPA no longer had the authority to regulate
hydraulic fracturing.

Dr. Theo Coburn of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) has
compiled what is probably the most comprehensive list of both drilling and
fracturing chemicals based in part on samples from a well in Park County,
Wyoming where a breach in surface casing released drilling fluids in 2006. They
have uncovered 435 fracturing products that contain 344 chemicals including
ammonium nitrate, ethanol, methane, and diesel. According to the TEDX Web site,
“As natural gas production rapidly increases across the U.S., its associated
pollution has reached the stage where it is contaminating essential life
support systems - water, air, and soil - and causing harm to the health of humans,
wildlife, domestic animals, and vegetation.”

Chesapeake has done a pretty good job of maintaining its
environmentally friendly image, though two recent infractions reveal that
accidents are perhaps inevitable and that Cabot Oil and Gas is not necessarily
the exception.

On New Year’s Eve, evidence of a spill or contaminate
release at a drilling site in Wayne County, PA was reported after aerial photos
taken by an environmental watchdog group, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability,
uncovered damage to trees near a well pad. The photos show a row of dead,
leafless trees extending from the drill pad. Chesapeake had not reported the
spill, which would be a violation of state law if indeed they were aware that
it happened. According to the Times
Tribune
, a “weathered petroleum product” was discharged into a forested
area and soil samples show that it contained elevated concentrations of barium
and chloride.

Perhaps more damaging were reports in early December of a
large hydrochloric acid spill in Asylum Township not far from Towanda. The
spill was said to have released 295 gallons of acid into the surrounding soil.
According to the DEP’s consent assessment the acid contaminated soil was
neutralized with soda ash and hydrated lime, 126 tons of impacted soil was
excavated, and approximately 13,817 gallons of hydrochloric acid/water mixture
were removed from the well site. According to a DEP spokesman, the contaminated
soil was taken to a landfill in New Springfield, Ohio. Although Chesapeake
reported the spill to the DEP in February when it occurred the clean up and
investigation was only publicized in December after the company was fined a
civil penalty of just over $15,500.

When I reached Asylum Township supervisor Kevin Barrett, who
happens to grow corn just below the drill site, he said the company dealt with
the spill responsibly. It was in a remote area of the township about a half-mile
from a major water source or residence on land owned by a family that does not
live there. Asked if he was worried that his corn might be contaminated with
hydrochloric acid, he said the spill was small and posed no threat to humans,
wetlands, or wildlife.

However, according to the DEP report, the estimated leakage
rate was 7.5 gallons per hour, though “Chesapeake personnel did not know how
long the tank had been leaking.” Chesapeake notified the DEP on February 9,
2009 that a leak had been discovered at around 9 a.m. A DEP representative
arrived at 1 p.m. and Chesapeake’s emergency contractor six hours later. If we
take the company’s figure of 295 gallons of spilled acid that means the tank
was leaking for close to 42 hours. Presumably the tank was leaking hydrochloric
acid for nearly 30 hours before anyone knew anything about it or bothered to
report it to the DEP. So was all of the contaminated soil contained and
removed?

Accidents do happen, Barrett told
me. It’s part of the price of doing business. Something McClendon and the Sierra
Club’s Pope might like to acknowledge as they make the case for an industry
whose green credentials are far from certain.

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