If you spend any kind of time talking to landowners in rural Ohio, the conversation always eventually shifts to shale oil, natural gas and fracking. Around here, the consensus is that fracking is a good thing. After all, anyone who owns more than a few acres of land knows that they can cash in their mineral rights for thousands of dollars per acre.
At least, that’s what the landowners will excitedly tell you.
But can Ohio landowners actually profit from fracking? Maybe—though it’s unlikely. In 2011, gas and oil companies paid out 54 billion dollars in royalties to landowners around the United States. In order to get a slice of that pie, you need to have the perfect set of circumstances.
You can start to see the broader picture—making millions from fracking is only a little easier than winning the lottery.
So what’s the big fracking deal? Why not sign away your mineral rights for a chance to hit the jackpot? The answer to that is easy: Because the cost is too high. This isn’t a matter of spending a few dollars on losing lotto numbers or running your entire paycheck through a slot machine. Instead, the fracking industry is gambling with the world we live in and our way of life.
When it comes to the negative effects of fracking, there is a lot of controversy, myth, and more than a few conspiracy theories. This two-part series isn’t about any of that. It’s about real, concrete facts concerning earthquakes, the environment and on a more personal level, our ability to buy homes and live happy, healthy, secure lives.
“Induced seismicity” is a term that we will be hearing more and more in the coming years. Contrary to what some would have you believe, it’s not a myth, and it’s not a coincidence. Induced seismicity caused by fracking is very real, and it’s happening all over the United States.
This term refers to man-made earthquakes caused by industrial activities such as mining or horizontal drilling. In recent years, the fracking industry has caused hundreds if not thousands of small earthquakes around the nation. Oklahoma, for instance, has experienced thousands more earthquakes per year over the last several years than any other time in the state’s history. In fact, data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that Oklahoma, from 1978 to 2008, experienced between zero and three earthquakes per year that were magnitude 3 or greater. Those numbers started going up in 2009, topping off at 375 magnitude 3 or greater earthquakes per year in 2014.
This is not isolated to Oklahoma. Texas, Arkansas, Colorado and other states have all experienced sharp increases in the yearly number of earthquakes. And it’s happening right here in Ohio, too. In fact, the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America recently published a study showing that 77 earthquakes in Poland Township of Mahoning County—including one magnitude 3 quake—were directly related to fracking activity in the area.
Micro earthquakes don’t represent a huge threat—that we know of, anyway—but the problem is that as fracking continues, the earthquakes get larger and larger. Prior to 2009, serious earthquakes were incredibly rare in Oklahoma. Starting in 2009, the state experienced 20 earthquakes between magnitude 4 and 4.8 and one earthquake that measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. The problem is becoming so bad that the U.S. Geological Survey has issued statements indicating that Oklahoma residents should prepare for the “big one.” Insurance agents in the state are now reporting a 500% increase in the sales of earthquake insurance. Only a few short years ago, those same insurance agents in Oklahoma scoffed at the notion of earthquake insurance.
If we allow this to continue, the recent magnitude 3 earthquake in Mahoning County could be among the first of many.
The frustrating answer to this question is easy: We don’t know.
We know that numerous wastewater spills all over Ohio are polluting waterways and drinking water. We also know that the fracking industry is hurting valuable habitats and posing a threat to both human and animal health. How can it not, when chemicals like ethylbenzine—which affects the kidneys, liver and endocrine system—are used in hydraulic fracturing fluid?
What we don’t know is how bad things really are. According to Disclosing the Facts 2014, only a few of the largest oil and gas companies in the United States have agreed to shed any light on the substances and processes they use or the impact that it’s having on the environment.
A spill in Monroe County on June 28, 2014 highlighted the enormity of this problem. During this spill, at least 25,000 gallons of diesel and other toxins were released into the environment. Broken hydraulic lines led to several fires and more than 30 explosions that filled the air with smoke while scattering debris all over the job site. Worse, Haliburton, the company responsible for the spill, is not required to disclose a list of the pollutants that were released into area waterways. Firefighters received a list of propriety chemicals to assist with fire containment, and the EPA received this same brief list five days later—after the spill had been allowed to flow for miles downstream.
Here’s the truly frightening part.
Area water authorities, the residents who are drinking this water and the agencies responsible for testing the water to ensure its safety have never received a full list of the chemicals potentially released in this spill. Local residents and utilities can’t even begin to test the water for safety because among hundreds of possible substances, they have no idea what to test for. But we do know there is something in the water, considering that this spill killed at least 70,000 fish.
And that’s just one example. There are numerous accounts of the ways in which fracking pollutes our water, fills the air with toxins, destroys wildlife habitats and kills native creatures by the thousands.
The harmful effects to the environment don’t stop at that, however. More and more studies are proving that the toxic substances released into the environment are having disastrous effects on human health as well. One such study—a joint effort by researchers from the Department of Environmental and Occupational Heath, the Colorado School of Public Health, and several other organizations—found that women with high levels of exposure to natural gas drilling were 30% more likely to have children with congenital heart defects and 3.9 times more likely to have children with neural tube defects.
Other studies have proven that toluene, a chemical common in the fracking industry, rendered women infertile. Still more facts show that many of the chemicals used by the fracking industry are endocrine disrupters, which can cause serious hormonal imbalances.
Between earthquakes, habitat destruction, pollution and the effects on human health, fracking poses risks far too great to ignore. That’s not even counting the economic impacts of fracking. Next week, I’ll explore the ways in which fracking is making the financial side of things harder for the average American.
Click here to read Part Two: What’s the Big Fracking Deal?
Oklahoma Earthquake Information, U.S. Geographic Survey
Induced Earthquakes, U.S. Geological Survey
Earthquakes Induced by Hydraulic Fracturing in Poland Township, Ohio, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America
Record Number of Oklahoma Tremors Raises Possibility of Damaging Earthquakes, U.S. Geological Survey
Transparency and Risk in Hydraulic Fracturing Operations, Disclosing the Facts 2014
Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health via PubMed.com