America’s young fracking industry has been hailed and embraced by government officials. But energy independence comes at a cost: fracking pollutes rivers, causes earthquakes and spills waste on surrounding land. Is the price worth paying? How dire are the consequences of fracking? And why isn’t the public more alarmed? Today we ask these questions of a former vice-president of Mobil, now an anti-fracking activist. Lou Allstadt is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Lou Allstadt, former vice-president of Mobil, now anti-fracking activist, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, president Obama embraced fracking for a natural gas, calling it a “clean form of energy alongside renewables”. Burning natural gas is cleaner than oil – now, is fracking a bridge to renewable energy?
Lou Allstadt: As far as fracking being a bridge to renewable energy, I think that’s a very dangerous assumption. Many of us thought that it would be – myself included – but when you look at the amount of the greenhouse gasses that any of the fracking processes release, it turns out that they’ve actually put out more greenhouse gasses than existing coal and other fossil fuels.
SS: We’re going go point by point through all of that. But, let me just ask you this: you live in an upstate New York, and the biggest anti-fracking movement is in your state. You’ve seen with your own eyes what fracking can do to community – so what was the first thing that turned you against fracking?
LA: I have been retired from the oil business for several years and friends who knew that I worked in it asked me what I thought about fracking, particularly right next to the lake that provides drinking water to the town where I live. I said “no one would drill that close”, but then I looked into it, and when I did, I found that both regulations that were in place and proposed, and the process of fracking was drastically different from what it had been for conventional drilling. As I dug into it, I realised that there were lots of opportunities for problems, and the regulations and technology just wasn’t safe.
SS: Now, Exxon’s current pro-fracking CEO has seemingly turned against it right now, but only because he doesn’t want a tower build in the backyard of his luxury home, I’m sure you’ve read that story – but do you think it’s just a view he’s worried about?
LA: I think in his case it is just a view and his property values, and no way it’s his neighborhood that he is worried about. I think the rest of us have to be worried about the effect on climate change of further fossil fuel extraction, particularly with the fracking process.
SS: All right, let’s go a little bit into details of how all of that works. Now, most energy industries are in industrial areas inside of buildings, separated from homes and farms, separated from schools, but fracking is different, right? It occurs right where people live. How is this even allowed to take place?
LA: Well, that’s a very good question. Most traditional energy sources were fairly remotely located, not all of them, but most of them were in the remote areas. It turns out that the shales and the tight formations that require fracking happened to occur near some very populated areas – so you get questions of drilling and fracking right next to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and things like that, which is a really bad idea.
SS: It is a bad idea, but how is that allowed? I mean, I just want to get your viewpoint on that, as a citizen of a country where fracking is huge right now.
LA: I think it became allowed because most people thought of drilling as the old process that was considerably more benign. Fracking takes 50 to 100 times more water, chemicals, truck trips than conventional drilling. As it grew, people were expecting to see that smaller footprint but it turned out to be much more intrusive. So, the early regulations were not very good and in the States we do the regulations state-by-state, there’s no overall national, federal, set of regulations.
SS: I just want to talk about the whole water issue – there is no question that hydraulic fracturing uses a lot of it. It can take up to 7 million gallons to frack a single well – is it affecting water supplies. I mean, are we going to end up searching for clean water, and not gas, at the end of the day?
LA: We could well end up there in places that tend to by drying, don’t have a lot of water and aquifers below the surface – and that’s starting to be a problem in places like Texas, which drilled for years, conventionally, not using so much water; but now, that they’re using a lot of water, they’re having to ration that water between agricultural farming uses and drilling.
SS: But how is it, people go for fracking versus clean drinking water?
LA: There’s an interesting situation in States that doesn’t apply in most of the rest of the world. In most other places, the mineral rights are owned by government. In the States, the mineral rights are owned by individuals and the mineral rights to oil and gas or other minerals can be separate from the rights to own the land on the surface. So you have people that own those mineral rights, that see possibility of making a lot of money for themselves, and go for it while not considering what’s that going to do to everybody else. So we’ve got a situation where the basic set up of ownership of minerals in the States creates this push-and-pull between people that own the mineral rights and people that want to do the farming or want to have water available for drinking.
SS: What, we have to change the ownership policy to advance your cause – is that what you’re saying? How do you do that?
LA: No, no, I don’t think that would be a practical solution at all – I think what we need is a very careful regulation of the fracking process and the amount of water that can be used to make sure in each that it’s done, it doesn’t take too much. But that’s only part of the problem. The problem is, emissions and other things that maybe we’ll talk about later…
SS: No, we’re going to talk about emissions for sure, but since we’re talking about water and just regulations for fracking in general, and you’re saying that mineral rights are owned by private citizens – what’s the solutions? Does the government have no say over it at all, I mean, even if they see that this harming the environment – can they not regulate what the private citizens do with their rights for minerals?
LA: Each state has its own set of regulations, and some states have seen some of these problems develop and have tightened up their regulations a bit. That’s good step as far as it goes, but it’s not going to solve all of the problems.
SS: Okay. So let’s talk about emission and leaking – the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found methane leakage rates up to 17% of annual gas production at gas and oil fields in California, in Colorado and in Utah. So, why are there so many leaks and should we be concerned about these leaks?
LA: The leaks are coming to light relatively recently, and this is why “natural gas being bridge fuel to the future” was considered – nobody knew how badly it was leaking. In addition, the International Panel on Climate Change has increased its estimates of how bad methane leaks are for the atmosphere. Now, they are saying that over 20 years, methane is 86 times worse than carbon dioxide. So you can see, it doesn’t take a whole lot of leakage of methane to be a real problem – and to me, this is a biggest single problem with fracking. We don’t know exactly where all of those leaks are coming from. Some are clearly coming up around the drill pipe, but it looks like some are from other sources where methane is finding its way to the surface.
SS: How is it that no one is really talking about it? I mean, what you’re saying is huge… How is it that everyone’s closing their eyes on this issue?
LA: I’m not sure they’re closing their eyes, they just haven’t opened them yet. If you look at the oil industry, there is number of companies that did everything – they explore, they produce the oil, they put it through pipelines to refineries, they took it out and sold it at gasoline stations and as a heating oil and things like that. If you look at the gas industry, at least in the States, there’s no company that does it all – you have some companies that explore and produce the gas, some companies handle it after that, put it through treatment plants, through longer pipelines, then it goes into small distribution pipelines inside cities, and then is used by home-owners. Nobody does that whole thing, and nobody saw the whole problem. I think that’s one of the issues. Now we’re starting to get evidence that each point along the way has problems. You’ve mentioned a leakage around the gas fields, but there’s also leakage in the pipelines, there’s leakage under the city streets, and there’s leakage every time you turn on or off your gas stove or your heating appliance goes on and off.
SS: Now talking about places other than oil fields and wells that leak methane – for instance, compressor stations that condense gas for its long journey through pipelines are also known to emit cancerogenes and neurotoxins. Are there other emissions the general public is not aware of? And I’m not talking about places, I’m talking about emissions themselves.
LA: Yes. One thing that most people don’t realise is that oil production usually has gas production with it, so oil production carries along the same kinds of issues, of methane leakage into the atmosphere and when that gas is processed, volatile hydrocarbons coming off, creating health issues for people that live near those compression stations, in addition to noise and all kinds of other unpleasantries, if you happen to be unlucky enough to live near compression station. I think one of the things that we started to talk about is “what can be done”, and I don’t think it’s more regulations, I think it’s really hard to make these processes safe – I think what we really have to do is to start moving to renewable energy, so that we use less and less fossil fuels.
SS: Alright, but renewable energies also are very expensive and it’s a long term thing – but as far as fracking is concerned, we have seen the Environmental Protection agency say government regulations has let to reduce methane emissions. So, is t he government trying somehow to make it safer?
LA: They are trying and there are places where I think there are some technical solutions, tidying up the facilities and things like that. The places that are very hard to deal with, though, are leakage in the gas fields, outside of the wellbores and leakage in the city streets with very-very old pipes down there and also with the leakage at end users: every time you turn on or off your gas stove, you’re putting a little bit of methane in the air. Every time your heating system goes on and off, you’re putting a little bit up. When you add all of that up, it’s a lot of leakage, even if you are successful in places that the EPA is trying to address.
SS: Are you saying that when they’re saying that they’ve reduced methane emissions, they really take one or two particular places that they’ve tied up and they overgeneralise it, but really, what we have is still a lot of leakage?
LA: Well, remember that that EPA proposal was made before this last revelation of how much leakage there are in the gas fields – the NASA information, from space, looking down at how much leakage there is… The EPA put out their suggestions on how to contain methane before anybody knew it was as bad as this is.
SS: Let’s talk about water catching fire – this is already a famous image, connected with the dangers of fracking. But in one case, for example, a Colorado officials determined that the homeowner’s own water well had been drilled into a naturally-occurring pocket of methane. So, are gas wells to blame in that case? I’m sure that happens a lot, too, you know.
LA: It certainly happens. There is, certainly, naturally-occurring methane that can come up in water wells. However, if you look at the areas where there is a lot of drilling, there are a lot more homeowners’ faucets that have gas in them, than there were before there was drilling. So, can it occur naturally? Yes. Does it happen more frequently, is there more water contaminated when there’s drilling nearby? Yes also.
SS: Now, that bill in Congress that has asked the fracking industry to disclose the chemicals it puts into fracking water – I mean, it’s there. But that’s been resisted for a five years now – why is that? What’s wrong with saying what goes into the well?
LA: I really think the industry doesn’t want people to know everything about what goes into the wells – I think they’ve been trying to find less dangerous chemicals, but so far, it doesn’t look like they’ve been very successful. The chemicals that go down into the well have many components that are toxic.
SS: Can you name them? Do you know what they are?
LA: We know what they are – there is more than a hundred of them, but what we don’t know is what is in each individual well. The companies do not have to tell you what is in each individual well – and in addition to that, when these chemicals go down and break up the rock, when the pressure is released, the naturally-occurring chemicals that are down in the rock, which are heavy metals, like barium, arsenic, some radioactive material – that all comes up. So, what comes out of the well, when they take the pressure off and start cleaning out the well, what comes up is actually worse than what comes down. And all of that has to be disposed of.
SS: Talking of disposal – where does the radioactive waste go, the waste from production go? Are there any special waste-sites?
LA: That is a really good question. The industry is scrambling to find places to put it. If you look at Pennsylvania, which is a big producing area right next to where I live in New York state – their waste is going out to all the neighboring states, and some of it is going as far away as Texas.
SS: So is it like, just, lying out in the streets or something? Are you saying there’s no, like, special sites, and they just put it out anywhere they can?
LA: No, in many cases they try to inject it into deep disposal wells, wells that have been drilled specifically to take the waste. There are wells like that in number of places – the problem that has occurred as more of this is happening, is that we’re starting to get earthquakes in the areas where there are disposal wells – because of pushing so much material into the ground, we’re getting earthquakes where there never were earthquakes or nothing substantial in the past. The other way to dispose of this material is to take it to waste-treatment plants, that are normally used just for municipal waste – and really, all they do is dilute the material and then put it out into the rivers, so we have cases where there is enough of this material going into the rivers where we have downstream communities that were taking drinking water from the rivers that had really serious concerns about the health of the water that was coming down the river.
SS: Shouldn’t that be forbidden? Dumping radioactive waste to normal waste-sites?
LA: I certainly think so, but we have a very strange situation here, where the chemicals that go into the drilling area, are classified as hazardous materials before they are delivered to the drilling site. When they go down the well, and come up and have other chemicals mixed with them, they’re now considered industrial waste that can be handled without as much precautions as the original material. It’s a very strange situation.
SS: That’s very convenient, isn’t it. We know that companies are also offering people money to move out of their homes. Tell me, realistically speaking, if I don’t want to move, could I resist that? Could people resist if they don’t want to go when they’re told to move?
LA: People are resisting and they’re not being “told” to move – maybe they’re told quietly, but the government isn’t making them move, but it’s pretty hard to live in your home if your water is no longer drinkable or usable, or if you’re right next to loud noise and toxic chemicals that are in the air – so, a lot of people are ending up moving out, but one of the things that’s happening is that companies will pay them some money to move and also require that they sign a statement that they will never disclose anything about the whole case. So we have people being forced out – practically forced out of their homes – that need some money in order to relocate, that sign off, and can never talk about it. So, we have many-many cases of people that can’t talk about the problems that they’ve experienced.
SS: But on the other hand, I’m thinking, you know, for a lot of poor people, fracking is like a god-send gift for them, no?
LA: Most of those poor people don’t own a lot of land. The only people that might make some money on it are large landowners. In the States, normally, you own the land when own the house, but in the more populated areas, the houses are not on enough land to make it terribly worthwhile in terms of the income that you might get from the fracking.
SS: I want to talk about how workers are involved in this whole process. Carl Weimer from the Pipeline Safety Trust says that on average, a significant incident takes place about every other day and someone ends up in hospital or dead about every 9 or 10 days. So I mean, this number to me seems crazy, even though I don’t know how it happens in other industries. Are shale gas pipelines as dangerous as any other?
LA: I don’t have direct access to those number, so I can’t comment on the numbers themselves, but it is a dangerous occupation. It’s not just the pipeline, it’s the drilling in the field, it is the building of the pipelines, the building of the compression stations… Many of the companies have been rushing pretty hard to increase their production, so all of that has certainly led to a number of injuries.
SS: Now, I’ve also heard the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say that there’s nothing “inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can’t solve”. So, from what we’ve been talking about it does seem like the U.S. officials may be lying, or what?
LA: Part of this is, maybe, optimism, part of it is defining fracking – the industry and to some extent the regulatory bodies define fracking very narrowly as the short period of time that there’s pressure on the well. Most people think of fracking as the whole process – during that very narrow period there probably is not a huge chance of something going wrong, but in the overall process of bringing in the chemicals, of popping them down, of bringing it back up, disposing of the waste and then the whole transportation process and everything that goes with it – there are many, many opportunities for problems.
SS: Now, you’ve mentioned earthquakes, right. So we have earthquakes coupled with explosive gas, contaminated water, rocks and living communities nearby – sounds like a recipe for a spectacular environmental disaster. But so far, we haven’t really seen one yet, have we?
LA: No, no. What we are seeing is more and more earthquakes in areas where there’s drilling and drilling with fracking or with these disposal wells of the fracking material. Keep in mind that this is very deep down, so the chance of there being an explosion associated with those things is probably very small. But the earthquake issue is real.
SS: Lou, thank you so much for this interesting insight into the world of fracking. We were talking to Lou Allstadt, former executive, vice-president of Mobil and now an anti-fracking activist. We were talking about the pros and cons of fracking and what future holds for it. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we will see you next time.
By Sophie Shevarnadze for RT