A lot of farmers in my area are leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing — is it good or bad? What do farmers say?

June 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

A lot of farmers in my area are leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing. I know this is supposed to help us tap natural gas and wean us off foreign oil, not to mention earning extra money for farmers, but I've also heard it's dangerous. What's the real story—is it good or bad? What do farmers say?

Thanks,
Mike E.
Sharpsburg, PA

It’s no secret that America’s energy system needs a serious makeover. With the price of gasoline and diesel hovering near $4.00 a gallon and consumers struggling in a precarious economy, energy is on everyone’s mind.

Today, oil and coal dominate as fuels, equaling almost 60% of all the energy Americans consume.[1] But despite advancements, oil and coal extraction remain dirty businesses that wreak havoc on ecosystems, private property and farm and fishing communities time and again (remember last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill?). Burning these fuels is also dirty, contributing to air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and public health problems in areas of intense smog. Meanwhile, our dependence on them, particularly from foreign sources, makes for expensive and treacherous political territory—to put it lightly.

So, we need cheaper, cleaner, safer, sustainable and homegrown sources of energy now and into the future. Is natural gas the answer to our energy woes?

That question has come to the fore as developments in “high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing” – or hydrofracking – have cast natural gas, which burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, as the rising star among energy sources. This decades-old technology is now more potent, allowing access to enormous pools of previously elusive natural gas that’s trapped beneath deeply buried rock.

As they struggle to keep their farms viable, many family farmers have leased their land or sold mineral rights on their property to energy companies in order to generate more income—offering up farmland for gas or oil extraction through hydrofracking. Unfortunately, the promise of lucrative contracts (read: thousands of dollars per acre for leasing rights), rural jobs and infrastructure development has too often proven empty. For many, hydrofracking has been disastrous for the environment, rural communities and family farmers (including some who have called us on the 1-800-FARM-AID hotline).

What the frack?

First things first: what exactly is hydrofracking?

The hydrofracking process mixes huge amounts of water—between 200,000 and 6 million gallons, in fact—with sand and a heap of chemicals, which are then injected into wells at very high pressures to break up rock formations and release natural gas or oil.

First introduced commercially by Halliburton in 1949, hydrofracking didn’t make it big until an enormous (and controversial) loophole in the 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted it from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the CLEAR Act and from EPA regulation.[2] With the government’s blessing, by 2008 hydrofracking was used in 90% of the thousands of new wells drilled in the U.S. each year. Those new wells, introduced in at least 34 states, have been placed increasingly closer to homes, farms, towns, cities, public spaces and parks.[3]

Though the industry insists hydrofracking is safe, precise and controlled, experience has shown otherwise. The hydrofracking process is violent, blasting sections of rock and freeing not only fuel, but also wastewater and chemicals along with it. Each well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater laced with heavy metals, corrosive salts, naturally-occurring carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, in addition to carcinogenic chemicals used in the process. Much remains unknown about what happens deep in the earth’s crust as a result of a hydrofracking well. For example, it’s unclear how far wastewater and chemicals can spread or if hydrofracking deepens existing fissures in the earth that allow for leakage into groundwater and streams. While companies can capture some wastewater for reuse or storage in holding ponds, estimates are that anywhere from 20-70% of hydrofracking wastewater remains underground.[4]

Perhaps not surprisingly then, citizens residing near wells—many of them farmers—have complained of contaminated water supplies. Several cases involve horror stories like flammable tap water or families breaking out into rashes and succumbing to serious illnesses from mysterious changes in their well water. Because companies are not required to disclose which chemicals they use in their fracking mix, it has been nearly impossible for local regulators to confirm a connection between these incidents and hydrofracking activities. And all the while, company executives insist it’s impossible that hydrofracking could be causing well problems. Even as some states endure dramatic rises in incidents of contamination, little is being done to ensure responsible extraction and cleanup in the industry.

Fracking and our food

So back to the question at hand: what does hydrofracking mean for farmers and our food system?

In short: it ain’t good.

The opportunity for fracking fluids to contaminate groundwater or leach into ponds, streams and rivers means there’s ample opportunity for them to interact with our food. It has notoriously impacted livestock production in multiple states. In 2010, dozens of cattle in Pennsylvania (a major hydrofracking state) were quarantined when they drank hydrofracking wastewater that leaked from a well and into pastureland—water that contained chlorine, barium, magnesium, potassium and radioactive strontium. A similar incident occurred in Louisiana, where 16 cows that drank contaminated water dropped dead after foaming and bleeding at the mouth.

That kind of loss in a farmer’s herd has dramatic consequences for their farm business, not only in the loss of productivity from those animals, but also from footing the veterinary bills and addressing contamination of the land. Like other property owners, farmers also face the burden of depreciated land values from disruption of the natural resources on their property.

Crops are also at risk not only from contaminated water, but also from the air pollutants (particularly ozone) associated with hydrofracking that damage plant growth. In Sublette County, Wyoming, home to just 9,000 residents but many, many gas wells, levels of ozone are as high as in the city of Los Angeles![5]

Another major, emerging concern is radiation from contaminated wastewater. The Marcellus Shale formation that spans giant swaths of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia houses not only much sought-after deposits of natural gas, but also large amounts of highly radioactive radium. As the hydrofracking industry grows in the region, significant amounts of radiation have ended up in wastewater, much of it sent to treatment plants. However, most municipal wastewater treatment plants are completely unequipped to process the levels of radiation in the wastewater and cases of leakage and contamination in waterways have occurred. The threat has caused enough concern that the state of New York recently issued a partial moratorium on hydrofracking activity to investigate the issue further and avoid contaminating New York City’s water supply.[6]

Farmers who are offered contracts on their land face a tough decision, with scant information on the risks of hydrofracking and mounting financial pressures on the farm. New York State’s moratorium, for example, has sparked bitter divides in rural communities, many of them devastated by the crash in dairy markets over the past few years and desperate for economic recovery. But wealth generation and job creation shouldn’t come at the expense of our natural resources, the integrity of our farmland and food, the livelihoods of farmers or the health of Americans.

What to do?

When disasters happen, it is farmers and their communities who face the risks. Time and again, big companies with deep pockets fight against regulation, while distraught citizens have no one to turn to in the face of their water woes.

More communities are rallying around the dangers that hydrofracking presents. Several of Farm Aid’s partners have been fighting hydrofracking in their states, educating farmers and landowners on their rights and raising the profile of this issue nationally. To learn more and get involved, check out the work of:

At the federal level, Congress recently re-introduced S.587 and H.R.1084, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, or FRAC Act, to address the issue. The FRAC Act would require companies to fully disclose the chemicals used and allow the EPA to regulate hydrofracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Concerned citizens should contact their Congressional representatives to weigh in.

Lastly, learn more about the issue by watching the new Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland, which explores hydrofracking and its impact on farmers and rural communities in great depth.

Sources

1. U.S. Energy Information Administration (2011). Monthly Energy Review May 2011.

2. Estabrook, Barry. (2011). Fracking with our food: how gas drilling affects farming. Grist. May 19, 2011.

3. Lustgarten, A. (2011) Hydrofracked? One Man's Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling. ProPublica

4. Western Organization of Resource Councils (July 2009). Fact Sheet: Hydraulic Fracturing.

5. Estabrook, Barry. (2011).

6. Urbina, Ian. (2011). Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers. The New York Times. February 26, 2011.

Further Reading

Curious about other ways farmers and energy intersect?

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