A sludge pond at Barnett Shale in north Texas, where gas drilling is taking place. (Photo: Texas Kaos)
In the musical "Urinetown," a severe drought leaves the dwindling supplies of clean water in the hands of a corporation called Urine Good Company. Urine Good Company makes a fortune selling the precious commodity and running public toilets. It pays off politicians to ward off regulation and inspection. It uses the mechanisms of state control to repress an increasingly desperate and impoverished population.
The musical satire may turn out to be a prescient vision of the future. Corporations in Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and upstate New York have launched a massive program to extract natural gas through a process that could, if it goes wrong, degrade the Delaware River watershed and the fresh water supplies that feed upstate communities, the metropolitan cities of New York, Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton, and many others on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.
"The potential environmental consequences are extreme," says Fritz Mayer, editor of The River Reporter in Narrowsburg, N.Y. His paper has been following the drilling in the Upper Delaware River Valley and he told me, "It could ruin the drinking supply for 8 million people in New York City."
Trillions of cubic feet of natural gas are locked under the Marcellus Shale that runs from West Virginia, through Ohio, across most of Pennsylvania and into the Southern Tier of New York state. There are other, small plates of shale, in the south and west of the United States. It takes an estimated 3 million to 5 million gallons of water per well to drill down to the natural gas in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The water is mixed with resin-coated sand and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, biocides, surfactants, friction reducers and benzene to facilitate the fracturing of the shale to extract the gas.
The toxic brew is injected with extreme force deep within the earth. The drilling is vertical for about 5,000 to 7,000 feet. The technology, developed by Halliburton, allows drills to abruptly turn sideways when they reach these depths. The lubricant and biocides propel the sand on a horizontal axis for as far as half a mile. The fissures created are held open by the sand, and the natural gas flows to the surface through steel casings. Feeder lines run from the grid of wells to regional pipelines.
About 60 percent of the toxic water used to extract the natural gasâ€šÃ„Ã®touted in mendacious commercials by the natural gas industry as "clean" energyâ€šÃ„Ã®is left underground. The rest is stored in huge, open pits that dot the landscapes at drilling sites, before it is loaded into hundreds of large vehicles and trucked to regional filtration facilities. Such drilling has already poisoned wells in western Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, Montana, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. Those whose water becomes contaminated, including people living in towns such as Dimock, Pa., must have water trucked in to provide for their needs. Farm animals that have drunk the toxic mixture that has leeched from gas drilling sites have died. Cattle ranchers in Colorado, where drilling is occurring in close proximity, have reported that their livestock birthrates have gone down and animals are bearing deformed offspring.
"The single biggest concern is the release of poisons into the environment and its impact on all that live in proximity to the drilling activity," the River Reporter's editorial this week read following a visit to local drilling sites. "Large pits, lined with sagging black plastic, did not instill confidence that it couldn't escape into the environment. And we wondered how migrating birds would know the difference between this body of fluid and an area pond. Ironically, the effect on animals became very real that afternoon when, upon our return, we received the news that in Caddo Parish, LA, 17 cows died after apparently ingesting fluids that escaped from a nearby gas pad."
The New York City watershed lies within the Marcellus Shale. This watershed provides unfiltered water to more than 14 million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia and northern New Jersey. It is the largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the United States. And if the federal government does not intervene swiftly, it could become contaminated. The nonprofit group NYH2O has begun organizing in New York City, calling for a statewide ban on natural gas drilling to protect not only the city's fresh water drinking supply, but everyone else's. But New York's notoriously corrupt state Legislature and feeble governor seem set to permit the drilling.
The natural gas companies, not surprisingly, insist that the millions of gallons of poisoned water left underground or collected in huge open pits pose no threat to watersheds. Let us hope they are right. The truth is, no one knows. And these corporations, in a move that suggests the drilling may not be as benign as they contend, had their lobbyists ensure that the natural gas industry was exempted by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 from complying with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is designed to regulate groundwater.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a congressional hearing on Tuesday that the agency would consider revisiting its official position that this drilling technique does not harm groundwater. A 2004 study conducted by the EPA under the Bush administration concluded that hydraulic fracturing causes "no threat" to underground drinking water. The study was used to support the provision in the 2005 energy bill that exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation.
We do not know, because there is no federal oversight, the exact formula of the chemicals added to the water. We do not know, because the industry has been greenlighted through state regulatory agencies, what the millions of gallons of poison underground will do to our drinking water. We are told to trust the natural gas industry, as we were told to trust Wall Street. And if our drinking water becomes contaminated, then expect corporations to profit from the desperation.
Corporations like Bechtel have been buying up water reservoirs around the globe in anticipation of future water shortages. And what they will do when they control our water was illustrated in Bolivia a decade ago. The World Bank forced Bolivia to privatize the public water system of its third-largest city, Cochabamba. It threatened to withhold debt relief and other development assistance if the city did not comply. Bechtel, which was the only bidder, was granted a 40-year lease to take over Cochabamba's water through a subsidiary called Aguas del Tunari.
"Urinetown" was visited on Cochabamba in 2000 within weeks of the privatization. Aguas del Tunari imposed massive rate hikes on local water users of more than 50 percent, according to the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center. Families living on the local minimum wage of $60 per month were billed up to 25 percent of their income for water. The rate hikes sparked citywide protests. The Bolivian government declared martial law in Cochabamba and deployed thousands of soldiers and police to restore order. More than 100 people were injured in the rioting and a 17-year-old boy was killed. The Cochabamba project was abandoned, but Bechtel and other corporations are not done. Bechtel's control of the water supply in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a few years later resulted in water shutoffs, contamination, and a deadly hepatitis A outbreak. Water in a world of scarcity will be very profitable. And Bechtel is preparing for the bonanza at home and abroad.
Profit, even if it results in widespread human suffering, is the core of America's ruthless unregulated corporate capitalism. Our health care industry profits from sickness and death by excluding those who most need coverage. Our financial industry created perhaps the largest speculative bubble in human history and trashed our economy as well as looting our treasury. Our oil and gas industries, whose profits are obscene, wreck the environment and poison our water. And the worse it gets for us, the better it gets for them. You may not need to travel to a theater to see "Urinetown." It could soon be coming to you.