Colorado disaster exposes fracking risk

By Donal O’Cofaigh
Many of us have heard accounts of how Colorado has suffered from unprecedented floods. Main streets in university cities like Boulder, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, have been turned into rivers as flash floods have hurtled down washing away roads and buildings in their wake.
The more environmentally conscious will have accounted for this as another example of the extreme weather that we can expect a lot more of in the context of ever increasing CO2 levels and global warming; it is basic physics, put more energy into a dynamical system and you get more extreme behaviour. But few are aware of the disastrous impact that these floods have had on communities already living with extensive fracking in their back yards.

Colorado, like many frack-zones, is an incredibly beautiful area. Large towns like Aspen are a by-word for outdoor pursuits and skiing and attract large numbers of tourists every winter. But it is also a global centre for fracking activity. There are currently 45,000 active oil and gas wells in the state and that is set to increase to 60,000 with the opening of the ‘Front Range’ from Colorado Springs to Wyoming State line. An estimated 3,000 new wells are drilled there every year.

Local communities have fought back against this dangerous technology being imposed upon them. Five front-range communities have got fracking bans or moratoriums on their November ballots threatening the progress of the sector following the example of the community of Longmont which succeeded in voting through a ban on fracking in their area last year.

In response, the oil and gas industry have established a lobby group ‘Colorado Oil & Gas Association’, COGA, to oppose the local communities and promote the industry to government. One action taken by the well-funded COGA has been to hire attorneys to harass communities by questioning the legality of their petitions. Indeed, COGA has been successful in getting the State of Colorado government to sue Longmont electors for their petition drive.

Fracking and the Flood

The massive inundation and flash-floods which have gripped the mountainous areas of Colorado these last few days have swept through the fracking zone. TV footage shows motorways being eroded away and buildings being washed away in the flood – the fracking infrastructure has also been devastated as it is concentrated in the areas where the floods have predominated. As of Monday 16th September, up to 500 residents remain unaccounted for and there have been five confirmed fatalities. Over 1,700 people have been evacuated and 1,600 homes are estimated to be destroyed.

The nine-acre large concrete pads on which wells are bored have been overwhelmed and water has burst gas pipes below the surface allowing contaminants to escape in the underground ‘aquifer’ layers which supply drinking water for communities in a wide area. The lagoons or massive concrete pools in which contaminated water is stored before being re-used for subsequent fracks have been deluged with the contaminants swept into the regions rivers.

Containers storing the toxic chemicals for injection alongside the fracking water have been swept away with the concentrated chemicals being leached out into the flood waters. The web of pipelines connecting the tens of thousands of wells to the gas cleaning (processing) facilities and the main gas lines has been broken asunder with massive emissions of toxic and explosive gases in the process.

It would appear entirely incontrovertible that this will have resulted in a massive release of toxic chemicals into the water-basin and grounds around these areas. The polluting impact of this disaster will be measured over the coming decades. Although the oil and gas industry were exempted from complying with the Federal Clean Water Act by Congress in 2005 (primarily due to lobbying by Dick Cheney, Vice-President was a former CEO of the pioneers of Fracking – the Halliburton corporation) it is difficult to see how they will not be exposed for this pollution on a massive scale.

Surprisingly, however, the compliant pro-fracking media are all but silent on this matter. No TV camera crews risked touring the still-dangerous wells to document this catastrophe until Monday – two days after the onset of the floods.

COGA lobbyists are asking for campaigners who have highlighted the extent of the damage to wells and pipelines to identify where they are damaged and are playing ignorant to the extent of the damage. The same lobby which can afford to employ an army of lawyers to harass communities seeking to exercise a democratic right to stop fracking can’t afford a plane to fly over the thousands of wells that are damaged!

Both state and federal governments which are in the pocket of the oil and gas industry also are quiet and sit on their hands while the afflicted communities are too fearful of the floods to discover the full extent of the damage in the context of risk of landslides and further flash floods.

Dangerous Times

Fracking is just one of the latest forms of high-risk extractive approaches which are being promoted to secure oil and gas production. Other forms include deep-sea drilling for oil which caused the massive Gulf Oil disaster, drilling for oil and gas under the north pole (ironically only facilitated due to the contraction in polar ice coverage due to global warming sustained by oil and gas consumption) and fracking for tar sands oil in places like Alberta which is resulting in massive pollution of drinking water and disasters involved in the transport of tar oils such as that in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in June of this year resulting in the deaths of 47 people. These high risk extractive practices are forced by the increasing scarcity of conventional oil and gas, the inadequacy of investment in sustainable alternatives and the dominance of ‘growth’ policies which seek only to increase opportunities to realise ever increasing profits for the financial sector.

Those of us campaigning against fracking in Ireland and Britain send our solidarity to the communities who are suffering from this disaster in Colorado. They have been betrayed by a political class who do not represent them but the interests of the multi-billion dollar oil and gas industry.

Fracking, like Tar Sands Oil, Polar and Deep-Sea Drilling are global challenges facing humanity – challenges which when taken alongside global warming threaten the sustainability of civilisation as we know it and potentially the survival of our species in the long-term. As global problems, their solution must be global in nature. What is needed is instead of pandering to the demands of the fracking companies and their overriding profit motive which seeks everywhere to externalise costs and risks, what is needed is for the entire energy sector to be taken into public ownership and democratically managed in the interests of the many not the few. Such a move would open the door to the huge level of investment which is necessary to allow society to transition from a dependence on oil and gas to a environmentally sustainable pathway (and in the meantime create large amounts of employment in the process). Of course, that would mean standing up to the powerful oil and gas industry and their backers in the financial sector, who reap massive profits from the sector’s activities. Standing up to those interests would realistically demand challenging the capitalist system. This is the logic of standing up to the market anywhere: you are immediately forced into the tasks of challenging the nature of political and economic power. But that is the challenge we face and we cannot ignore or wish it away. It is a perspective that needs discussion across the growing anti-fracking movement.

Alongside that ongoing discussion within the movement and the development of our campaign, those involved must redouble our efforts to secure a ban on fracking here in Ireland before some other ‘unforeseen’ disaster releases a deluge of contaminants and pollutants into our drinking water or onto local farms. In doing this we need to develop links with campaign groups across Northern Ireland and Ireland, the UK and the rest of the world. The same threat afflicts us all and in all cases our political elites have abjectly failed us. The campaign for a ban on fracking continues.

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Some background to the disaster: A review of Fracking

To understand why flooding is so dangerous for fracking it is necessary to understand the basics of fracking and some of the dangers involved with the process.

The basic technology behind fracking involves drilling down about one kilometre and then arcing the drill to go horizontal for about another kilometre. Once the frackers have done that, they conduct a series of what amount to large pipe-bomb explosions using the drill hole through the rock as the pipe. But to have maximum impact this has to be done with millions of gallons of chemically treated water being pumped down the pipe at the same time. The underground bomb is detonated not with explosives but by building up the pressure of the water very quickly using sometimes dozens of massive compressor units base on the large pad above the well. Given the distances involved, it requires pressures of about 13,000 psi – compare that to your tyre pressure which is about 30 psi. In any case, this hugely pressurised water is pumped down and explodes into the rock.
The gas extraction works by keeping sand in suspension in the water when it is being pumped and pressured and these minute grains of sand explode with the water into the rock but unlike the water stay there and keep the minute cracks from closing back again – just enough for the small bubbles of trapped methane (and other gases) which are already in that layer of rock to escape. The result is a massive release of trapped gas which then rushes back up the pipe to the surface blowing up as much as between 30% and 40% of the water with it.
But the water used does not just contain sand but includes a ‘cocktail’ of chemicals that are pumped in along with the sand and water and which have a range of functions. To get some idea of why they are needed consider what would happen if you put some sand into a cup of water and stir it up. It will stay in the water but you will notice that it sediments very quickly. Sedimented sand can’t be pumped down the pipe so to avoid this, the frackers put in chemicals to emulsify the water and keep the sand in suspension. But some of these are organic chemicals which rot and that can corrodes the inside of pipes so they put in hydrochloric acid to kill the organisms that would rot the emulsifiers. Other chemicals used include biocides to kill growths, lubricants and friction reducers although the industry keeps the exact details as an industrial secret but the chemicals are known to include extreme toxins and cancer-causing agents.

What is probably even more concerning is that the water is further contaminated when it is pumped into the deep earth. Down there are chemicals which have never seen light or encountered oxygen for millions of years and which are highly toxic. There are heavy metals (toxic to animals) and radioactive elements as well as a variety of oils and gases. Methane doesn’t come in a pure state but with a variety of cancer-causing and toxic impurities – chemicals like benzene which are known carcinogens.

The fracking industry mostly deals with these impurities by either storing the wastewater that comes up again in massive lagoons (which all too often seep into the surrounding land) or, if they are forced to, they burn the impurities on site. Obviously this doesn’t get rid of the risk from radioactive elements but it does vaporise the chemicals only for them to fall back to earth when they cool down. Proving that they have caused cancers where they land is difficult to prove in a court of law so it is a useful practice for the frackers.

The 60% of contaminated water that doesn’t come back up to the surface is left down there and it is hoped that it never percolates into the drinking water located either above or below it. But even after the well becomes uneconomical to manage for the company (as the gas flow eventually drops off) and its seals the well off with a concrete cap, the methane continues to seep from the rocks and builds up a head of pressure under the well head. This often leads to explosions where the well head fails and contaminated water shoots up spilling over a large area above the ground – when you are unlucky it can catch fire. Wells have to be managed in perpetuity for this reason but that responsibility usually transfers back to land owners or the taxpayer rather than those who made the money initially.

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