In his State of the Union address, President Obama once again touted natural gas as the "bridge fuel" that will help the American economy reduce its carbon emissions and dependency on foreign oil. Since fracking has helped unlock domestic shale gas reserves, the United States has become the world's leading producer of a fossil fuel that burns cleaner than coal. For the past two years, Obama has put the expanding natural gas industry at the center of his energy and climate policies.
Marilyn Hunt has some choice words for Obama.
"I'd tell him it isn't a clean industry, it's a dirty industry," Hunt said.
Hunt would know. Her story is an all-too-familiar nightmare. She says her family first became sick in December 2009.
"We thought we all had the flu ... a lot of people had this experience," Hunt says.
Then the chicks born on her 70-acre farm in Wetzel County, West Virginia, began to die. The chicks were born with elongated beaks and deformed feet. Hunt says that some of the chicks seemed to have a neurological disorder and were unable to stand. They would spin around in circles and then die. The baby goats on the farm began to die as well. Hunt's neighbor called and complained that her well water was brown and her horses refused to drink it.
Hunt's family, and the animals on her farm, were all drinking the same well water. Hunt's husband, Robert, is a scientist and had the water tested. Lab tests found that the well was contaminated with acrylonitrile, a chemical listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a possible human carcinogen. Tests on a deeper well on a neighboring property identified hazardous chemicals such as benzene and toluene. All of these chemicals can be found in fracking fluids.
The Hunts blame Chesapeake Energy. The company began fracking for natural gas in their area in 2009, establishing several processing facilities and wells, including one a little more than a mile from Hunt's farm. The company sued the Hunts for their mineral rights, which are necessary to complete fracking operations in the area. The Hunts have counter-sued the company.
Hunt says air pollution from a growing number of gas facilities in the area forced her family to buy respirators. Chesapeake Energy harassed her family over the mineral rights they refused to give up and created deep divisions among neighbors. State regulators ignored the community's pleas for help. A 2010 explosion at a nearby Chesapeake well site that burned for eight days has left the neighborhood children with nightmares.
"We have flashbacks and we remember the nights the site blew up and so on," Hunt says. "...You could see the fires on the horizon, like a war zone."
Tales From the Shale Field
Hunt is one of dozens of people who contributed to "Shalefield Stories," a new collection of accounts of the impacts of modern natural gas extraction by the people living near well pads, gas-processing facilities and waste-disposal sites. From workers who became ill or even died while working at fracking sites to residents who watched their neighborhoods turn upside down as the industry's trucks began rolling in, the collection of stories is yet another testimony to the dark side of America's natural gas rush.
One common theme in the collection is illness, and environmental health experts continue to link commonly reported symptoms to those associated with exposure to the fumes generated by natural gas facilities.
"The symptoms reported in Shalefield Stories, including rashes, nausea, respiratory issues, and stress, mirror very closely what our health care professionals see in their examinations of residents and workers impacted by drilling operations here in southwestern Pennsylvania," observed Jill Kriesky, associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
The contributors to "Shalefield Stories," some of whom initially worked for the fracking industry or cashed in by allowing operations on their land, now want fracking to stop. But their leaders in Washington are not listening.
Obama's Vision for Natural Gas
As he reiterated in his speech, Obama is committed to fighting global warming by reducing domestic carbon emissions, and his vision hinges on increasing demand for natural gas. Key to Obama's climate plan are strict emissions standards for new power plants that would require electricity producers to install expensive new carbon sequestering technology or switch from burning coal to natural gas. But Obama's vision goes beyond power plants.
"Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas," Obama said. "I'll cut red tape to help states get those factories built and put folks to work, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas."
Obama is right - manufacturers do want to take advantage of low gas prices to power new factories. But these same manufacturers are worried that Obama's Department of Energy will approve new export terminals for natural gas that would send billions of cubic feet of gas overseas every day. The administration has already approved three export facilities, and 21 more are awaiting approval despite opposition from environmentalists opposed to fracking and manufacturers who want to keep domestic gas prices low.
For Marilyn Hunt and the other contributors to "Shalefield Stories," natural gas production is a nightmare. For Obama, gas is the "bridge fuel" that will carry American towards a future of cleaner energy. In Obama's future, natural gas will power everything from factories to automobiles, and if the US begins exporting massive amounts of gas, the demand for domestic reserves will grow further. Fracking, it seems, is not going to stop anytime soon.
The president did say he wants natural gas to be extracted safely, and his administration will "keep working with the industry to sustain production and jobs growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, our communities." The fracking industry, however, is currently exempt from several federal clean water regulations, and the EPA has yet to set any new blanket standards for water protection. The agency has spent several years producing a study on fracking's impacts to drinking water that could pave the way for new rules. That study is due out this year.