The Facts on Fracking: Interview with Barbara Arrindell of DCS

I AM PICTURES in association with I HEART H2O has just launched a trailer for their "ANYBODY of WATER" campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of unregulated fossil fuel extraction. A topic of controversy for the last number of years, hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) has become a serious concern among citizens, particularly in the Northeastern United States. In this interview, Barbara Arrindell, Director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS), one of the organizations behind the I HEART H2O PSA, shares the 101 on natural gas exploration.

Summer Rayne Oakes: Give us the 101 on fracking for those of our readers who might misinterpret it for Urban Dictionary's ribald definition?

Barbara Arrindell: Hate to say it but hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is an even dirtier term than what's presented in Urban Dictionary. It is used to describe a method of drilling into the earth to obtain natural gas, using toxic drilling muds, high volumes of water with tons of chemicals -- some known and some unknown -- and very high pressure to fissure and break geological layers to shake the gas loose.

SRO: So the natural gas industries haven't been able to "charm" the gas up from it's 400 million year old resting place using less invasive methods?

BA: Not at all. And natural gas exploration is exempt from our current legislative laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was designed to protect our nation's public drinking water supply. So it seems that the one thing that the natural gas industry has been able to charm are our politicians.

SRO: That is dirty indeed. Isn't there something called the FRAC Act that was currently reintroduced to the Senate and House of Representatives?

BA: Yes, but the FRAC Act, (which stands for Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals), only removes about one and a half of the loopholes for the natural gas industries.

SRO: Which ones are those?

BA: Well, it removes the exemption for oil and gas exploration and production from the Safe Drinking Water Act -- and part of the Community Right to Know Act, which provides the public and local governments with information concerning potential chemical hazards present in their communities. The FRAC Act will not halt drilling or even require any additional permits. It will possibly put liability for some damages back on the drillers, but until then the citizens living in affected areas AND DOWNSTREAM will have to foot the bill.

SRO: What's the status of the FRAC Act?

BA: It is currently stuck in committees. The FRAC Act will be a good first step if we can get it passed. It's important to encourage your senators and congresspeople to support it, but they need to hear from their citizens. American Rivers has an easy way for you to do so here, but I encourage anyone to be more proactive and actually write, call or visit with your Representative or Senator.

SRO: I hear an awful lot in the media that "natural gas is a cheap energy alternative." However, Amory Lovins, Chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, mentioned in the Sustainable Operations Summit this past week that natural gas isn't all that cheap, especially considering price volatility and other externalities. Tell us about the costs associated right now with fracking.

BA: Amory is right on the price volatility front -- but it's also a question of how long the supplies will last. The decline rate of fracked gas wells is very steep -- only 15 percent remains in two years -- so they have to keep on drilling new wells. The wells are expensive and most of the companies are losing money on each well, which means as stockholders keep on giving them more money, they spend it and it's clear that the bubble will eventually burst.

SRO: So who pays the bills if your water gets contaminated?

BA: The general public or you personally. Listen, the true costs of natural gas exploration and extraction are completely disregarded. External damages are rarely covered by the natural gas industries because they don't need to.

What the general public doesn't realize is that they [public citizens] are the ones footing the bills. For example, all equity in any area where the water is contaminated is lost. Try selling your home with contaminated water -- or with a view of a fracking mine behind your house. It's next to impossible.

If the water is contaminated, it is the citizens that will have to pay for their own clean water -- and that may mean traveling to the supermarket to get bottled water, or in many cases, having to have it trucked in from somewhere else where the water is not contaminated. Plus there are health impacts and mounting medical bills, which aren't factored into the equation.

SRO: I'm sure all of that information is not included in the pamphlet you get when the natural gas industry says they'll pay you upfront to frack your land.

BA: The true costs are never disclosed. You want to play Russian Roulette with your water quality and property value? You want to potentially be sued by your neighbor for destroying their water supply because he/she had foresight not to sell fracking rights to the natural gas companies? Those are some of the risks you run. Not to mention playing Russian Roulette with your health.

SRO: In the 1970s, the Eastern Gas Shales Project conducted by the Department of Energy found a wealth of natural gas locked up tightly far beneath the ground in shale rock formations -- the same gas that is being exploited today. One of the many problems as I see it is that the technologies to extract those fuels didn't (and still don't) consider the human and environmental impact of the toxic fracking fluids. What do you think?

BA: All of the toxic fracking fluids are a definite cause for concern -- but also something to consider is the fact that the hydraulic fracturing technique permanently shatters the underground geology and can connect gas bearing layers with water bearing layers.

There is so little fresh drinkable water on the planet and this technique breaks the geological barriers that have protected fresh water aquifers and the surface for millennia. The human and environmental impact is being ignored -- and yes, those very large volumes of fracking fluids left underground will move and are already moving and contaminating aquifers and surface waters.

SRO: Speaking of that -- Josh Fox's Gasland and youtube provide hours of sick enjoyment of watching people in fracking-affected areas light their water on fire due to the flammable chemical concoctions, which no pun intended. It blows my mind. What do you think it'll take for people and the government to realize that this is seriously Fracked up?

BA: What it will take is a lot of screaming -- and demanding -- and educating everyone. Young people, my generation and those who are yet to be born cannot live with this rolling disaster taking and spoiling our water and air.

SRO: So if we had a list of demands, what would it look like?

BA: We must demand that the cumulative impacts are looked at. That proper legislation be in place so that the industry is held accountable if they destroy water and air quality -- and that the huge subsidies are ended.

We must use the already developed non-carbon and non-nuclear solutions. This can be done by 2030. We are so creative, and if given the opportunity, we can switch to sustainable and renewable fuels very quickly if the demand and will to do it is there.

SRO: Alright, so what can each individual do?

BA: Be aware, get your local community engaged, help the organizations working on this issue. And like I said before, it's important to encourage your senators and congresspeople to support the FRAC Act, demand and be very critical when listening to rosy predictions from those promoting gas drilling.