By Andrew Pasquale, staff writer
Unless you live off the grid in the forest somewhere, natural gas touches your life to some extent. Natural gas fuels 27 percent of America’s electricity generation and 61 percent of American households use it for electricity, space or water heating or cooking. Many of us do not have to think about where our gas comes from, but the people who live over a shale deposit slated for fracking are painfully aware of the dark side of the gas industry. The documentary, Groundswell Rising is the story of people going toe-to-toe with the extractive giants who have set up shop in their back yards.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of shooting three to five million gallons of water at pressures around 10,000 psi into a hole above a shale formation to retrieve oil or natural gas trapped in the rock. Less than one percent of the massive fluid volume is an often-undisclosed mix of chemicals that range from the food additive guar gum to the carcinogen benzene. In addition to the chemicals, three to five million pounds of sand or ceramic beads are injected to hold the rock open once it has been fractured.
Another important feature of the fracking process is directional drilling. After drilling 5,000-9,000 feet down into the shale deposit, the operator turns the bit horizontally for up to another 10,000 feet. At intervals along the horizontal portion of the pipe, an electric wire detonates explosives that blow holes in the steel pipe and cement casing to allow frack fluid to flow out and natural gas to flow in.
The documentary began in Erie, Colorado with Erie Rising, a group of mom-activists fighting the air pollution caused by fracking. When gas, liquid hydrocarbons and flowback (the 10-30 percent of frack fluid that returns to the surface) emerge from the well, something must be done with all of that material. For a few weeks after drilling, the mix of liquid and gas coming from the well is too difficult to purify, so the gas is either released to the atmosphere or burned at the pipe.
Once purification begins, condensate tanks and evaporation pits are used to hold the liquid-gas hydrocarbon mix and flowback fluid respectively. Both of these vent hazardous compounds to the atmosphere, causing a host of respiratory symptoms. Through Erie Rising’s efforts, the local drillers admitted that the fumes were a public health hazard and began taking steps to mitigate them.
After Erie, viewers were taken to Dimock, Pennsylvania to see what havoc fracking has been wreaking on their water supply. When the drillers came to town, they held out a promise of jobs and economic prosperity. Years later, no such thing has materialized, and what’s more, there is methane in the water. Cabot Oil and Gas denied that their drilling was the cause of Dimock’s methane problem, but Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection fined them and required them to provide water and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since linked the events.
The final destination was New York, where we met Cornell engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea and Ithaca College ecology professor Sandra Steingraber. Ingraffea is an expert on the science behind fracking and Steingraber is a prominent activist. When fracking wells are drilled, cement is poured around the steel pipe that carries the gas to the surface to ensure that no methane migrates upward into groundwater sources. This is what happened in Dimock, and according to Ingraffea, it occurs in five percent of all new wells, with the likelihood increasing with age.
With this risk to the water supply, many New York homeowners are worried. However, they cannot resist drillers coming onto their land. Through a mechanism called compulsory integration, gas companies can install wells against a landowner’s will and pay rates potentially below market value for the oil they extract. They also are not required to pay the landowners for drilling on their property. It is essentially eminent domain for oil and gas companies.
All of this is possible thanks to Dick Cheney, former CEO of the oil company Halliburton, who helped to get the “Halliburton loophole” into the 2005 Energy Policy Act. This loophole exempted fracking from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. This means that frackers are not required to report which chemicals they use and citizens have no way of knowing what might be venting into their air or leaking into their water.
After the film, a panel consisting of activist and former Athens County commissioner Roxanne Groff, Professor Austin Babrow and undergraduate Zak Blumer lead a discussion about fracking in Athens and surrounding counties. There is no fracking in Athens county, but there are injection wells. Injection wells are where the frack waste is disposed of if it is not treated for reuse in another fracking well. Athens County is the number-two destination in the state for frack waste and a lot of the waste that comes into the state of Ohio is from outside the state. This is due to other states having stricter regulations regarding how injection wells are operated.
The discussion then hopped over to Portland, Ohio in neighboring Meigs County. This is the site of a proposed dock for barges to offload frack waste to be put into nearby injection wells. Although the Army Corps of Engineers has approved the construction of the dock, the Coast Guard is taking longer to give its passing grade due to the radioactive nature of the waste. Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) is working to prevent this dock’s construction as well as further K&H injection wells in Athens County.
The last major issue that was tackled in the discussion was Ohio University’s Climate Action Plan and the Lausche coal-fired power plant. In what many feel is a sheepish excuse for a step in the right direction, OU is decommissioning Lausche in exchange for a gas-fired cogeneration (heat and power) plant. The Climate Action Plan calls for carbon neutrality in far-off 2075, and a representative from Ohio University’s Student Senate passed around a petition to call to move that date forward.
Regarding OU’s Climate Action Plan, Blumer said that, “OU is heavily invested in fossil fuels and it’s not that easy to get out. But there are schools that have done it and they’ve made money.”
The examples are out there, but the administration is still reluctant. In response to this resistance, Babrow offered his solution. “We could do something like have a crowd-sourced [program] buying solar panels for OU because they feel that we can’t afford it. Let’s have the community pay for it. It would be embarrassing for the university, I think a little bit.”
By the end of the 45-minute discussion, the attitude in the room was alight with optimism, but not without an undertone of sober understanding regarding the work that still has to be done. The most inspiring part of the film Groundswell Rising is its subtitle: “Protecting Our Children’s Air And Water.”
The overarching message was not one bemoaning losses or a plea for help, but rather one of hope for the future. The activists, both in the film and in the theater, work tirelessly so that their children do not have to suffer the same injustices that they are subject to. It is this push from the grassroots up that gives the film its name.
The Spring Sustainability Series at Athena Cinema will run through the end of April. All screenings are free to the public.
Andrew is a recent graduate of Ohio University’s Environmental and Plant Biology Department who makes his own deodorant and chocolate. You can usually find him out in Waterloo or in Porter Hall helping with ecophysiology research. On the weekends, he works at The Village Bakery…
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