Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amy Goodman: Cracking Down on Fracking

Cracking Down on Fracking
by Amy Goodman
Common Dreams

Mike Markham of Colorado has an explosive problem: His tap water catches fire. Markham demonstrates this in a new documentary, “Gasland,” which just won the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Director Josh Fox films Markham as he runs his kitchen faucet, holding a cigarette lighter up to the running water. After a few seconds, a ball of fire erupts out of the sink, almost enveloping Markham’s head.

The source of the flammable water, and the subject of “Gasland,” is the mining process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Fracking is used to access natural gas and oil reserves buried thousands of feet below the ground. Companies like Halliburton drill down vertically, then send the shaft horizontally, crossing many small, trapped veins of gas and oil. Explosive charges are then set off at various points in the drill shaft, causing what Fox calls “mini-earthquakes.” These fractures spread underground, allowing the gas to flow back into the shaft to be extracted. To force open the fractures, millions of gallons of liquid are forced into the shaft at very high pressure.

The high-pressure liquids are a combination of water, sand and a secret mix of chemicals. Each well requires between 1 million and 7 million gallons of the fluid every time gas is extracted. Drillers do not have to reveal the chemical cocktail, thanks to a slew of exemptions given to the industry, most notably in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which actually granted the fracking industry a specific exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. California Congressman Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has just announced an investigation into the composition of the proprietary chemicals used in fracking. In a Feb. 18 letter, Waxman commented on the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption: “Many dubbed this provision the ‘Halliburton loophole’ because of Halliburton’s ties to then-Vice President Cheney and its role as one of the largest providers of hydraulic fracturing services.” Before he was vice president, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton.

In an earlier investigation, Waxman learned that Halliburton had violated a 2003 nonbinding agreement with the government in which the company promised not to use diesel fuel in the mix when extracting from certain wells. Halliburton pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic, diesel-containing liquids into the ground, potentially contaminating drinking water.

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