Fracking Harms Fish Through the Halliburton Loophole

(Credit: Gasland)


  Before we begin to grasp the impacts of Fracking on fish, let’s take a quick look at an energy boom that swept the continent and world more than a century ago that presented similar challenges.
   Like a scene in a cheesy 80’s movie, my family pushed south on Interstate 5 on our annual journey through California’s Central Valley in the family station wagon on a sizzling hot summer day.  As I peeled my sweat soaked skin from the fake leather bench seat, my parents announced we were taking a detour to visit the Iron Zoo.  I was crazy about animals, and anticipation of the zoo was probably the only feeling of excitement I ever experienced on what I consider the most boring stretch of road in America.
The most boring stretch of road in America.


   I should have known better than to get excited.  No self-respecting animal owner would keep a zoo in a location unaffectionately referred to as “the armpit of California”.  Rather, an artist had painted oil pump jacks like cartoony horses, birds, giraffes, and other animals at the “Iron Zoo”, creating an attraction out of otherwise lifeless contraptions once used to pump oil from the ground.
Needless to say, I was disappointed it was not a real giraffe.
   The industrial revolution created an insatiable thirst for fossil fuels.  The need to find new deposits and create new technology spread a wave of exploration and extraction.  One is easily reminded of this when in the western half of the United States, as it is littered with oil jump jacks and other relics of the energy booms and busts of the past century.
Jed Clampett wasn’t the only one to find oil in Oklahoma.
   The hustle and bustle of downtown Los Angeles lies on top of the 3rd largest oil field in the United States, and still has active oil rigs pumping away on top of historically rich sites.  Hard to believe it, but Beverly Hills has more money in underground oil deposits than in above ground bank deposits.  The wide expanses of Oklahoma and Texas once had huge oil booms, but, just like the namesake Houston Oilers NFL team, were pushed aside when performance waned and revenues dropped.  The Oklahoma State Capitol Building still has an oil rig right there on site, like a big gulp straw that perpetually fed the industrial beast. 

Los Angeles still  has active oil towers
like this one at the Beverly Hills Mall.


Los Angeles in the 1920s with
thousands of oil towers.


   In more rural areas, like Wyoming, energy extraction sites were often constructed on land leased from the Federal Government.  With sparse human populations, little concern was raised, and extraction pushed forward with relatively minor resistance.  But what about the impacts the exploration and extraction had on the land and aquatic environments?  The first three quarters of the 20th century were not exactly a model for environmental stewardship.  Are we seeing a similar trend with Fracking in the 21st century?
Jonah Fracking Field in Wyoming.
Abandoned oil fields are a common site.
   It is clear that booms and busts of energy extraction are a major part of history, and understanding history should help guide future decisions.  So what exactly is “fracking” (short for natural gas horizontal hydraulic fracturing), and why is there a recent boom in extraction combined with a swell in public resistance?
What is Fracking?
   Fracking involves drilling more than a mile down and more than a mile horizontally into a shale layer.  Millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are injected, and small fissures in the shale that are filled with liquid methane (natural gas) are fractured under the increased pressure.  The concoction, laden with liquid natural gas, amongst toxic chemicals like arsenic and barium, is brought to the surface and placed in holding ponds or tanks to await truck or pipeline transport to a facility for separation of natural gas.
What is Fracking?
The recent resistance to fracking can be traced to two major factors:
1.  Drilling in populated areas.  Most people don’t worry about a bear in the woods, but put it in their backyard and they take notice.  The same can be said for fracking.  Outside of the sparsely populated coal regions of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, the eastern half of the United States has historically been spared of widespread energy extraction from the ground.  Natural gas exploration and extraction along the Marcellus Shale Deposit has moved fracking rigs, heavy truck traffic, and groundwater contamination directly into populated towns and properties, and people are taking notice and raising concern.
Fracking in the backyard.
2. The “Halliburton Loophole”.  Halliburton first patented fracking in the 1940s, and is the world’s largest fracking services provider.  With the help of former Halliburton CEO, Dick Cheney, the United States 2005 Energy Bill passed with language that exempted fracking operations from the regulations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and exempted the concoction of chemicals used for fracking from pollutant status under an amendment to the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.  People are frustrated and scared of the health risks associated with such environmental disregard.
Exemptions for the fracking industry created by the Halliburton Loophole.
   Further, the chemicals used in fracking are considered proprietary, and are not subject to review by the EPA.  Fracking companies report that maintaining proprietary status helps maintain a competitive edge, and that companies are self-regulated, thus mitigating any possible health concerns (we need to just trust them to watch out for our safety over their profits, right?).  With little to no restrictions, drilling companies have been expanding at a rapid rate since this bill was passed.
Fracking fluids contain proprietary ingredients…anyone up for a swim?
So what about the fish?
   The process of creating electricity almost always relies on water, and therefore will have impacts on fish communities.  Dams alter fish migration and habitat, and nuclear and coal fired power plants impinge fish on water intakes and increase water temperatures at outputs.  Coal and oil extraction contaminate groundwater and streams and reduce stream flows by extracting large volumes of water.  What about Fracking?
Fish are impacted by fracking in the following ways:
1. Water extraction – Fracking reduces flow in streams and reduces fish habitat.  Millions of gallons of water are pumped into each fracking well.  The sources of water are often headwater streams or pumped from groundwater supplies.  Headwater streams are fragile ecosystems that are dependent on seasonal flows and groundwater supplies that offer a buffer that recharges stream flows in times of low rainfall.

Millions of gallons of water are pumped or trucked to the fracking site.

2. Roads, well sites, traffic, and facilities – Increased development in watersheds causes runoff of sediments and contaminants, increased roads and culverting of streams that fragment stream habitats, and trucking of chemicals provides geographically widespread spilling.  Additionally, it is well documented that methane seeps from wells and contaminates groundwater.  Surrounding streams are subsequently contaminated and bubbling methane disturbs bottom sediments, covering stream beds in silt, and choking fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Fracking sites have large infrastructure needs.

3. Chemical contaminants – Fracking contaminates groundwater and surface water like streams and lakes through runoff, spills, dumping, and cracked well heads, all spreading contaminated fracking fluids and methane (liquid and gas).  Further, contaminated fracking fluids are kept on site in holding ponds prior to transportation, where evaporation and steaming off of chemicals is promoted with sprayers and pressurization (remember, not only are they exempt from the Clean Water Act, but also the Clean Air Act).  Deposition of these airborne chemicals contaminates local water sources and associated fish populations.

Ponds have misters that promote evaporation of chemicals
to lighten the amount of contaminated water that needs to be
transported off site by trucks.

4. Terrestrial ecosystem degradation – Fish rely on intact ecosystems for survival.  Runoff and nutrients in aquatic systems are deposited from terrestrial systems.  Fracking impacts not only aquatic systems, but also terrestrial environments and animals.  For example, critical wintering grounds of pronghorn antelope have been highly impacted by fracking wells in the Jonah Field, Wyoming, creating ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.  Pronghorn have a high influence on a large expanse of land because they are the furthest migrating land mammals in the United States, and depend upon critical habitat for winter grazing that is being destroyed.  Native fish species in the Green River, adjacent to this land, have already been impacted by large reservoirs, and impacts to terrestrial systems that then transfer to aquatic systems could finish off depleted fish populations.

Critical pronghorn antelope winter ground has been
highly impacted by fracking platforms.
   Several southeastern States, including North Carolina, are currently considering fracking legislation that would open the door to fracking companies.  The region hosts some of the most diverse freshwater fish and mussel populations in the world, and they are already depleted to historically low levels.  Additional alterations to aquatic ecosystems could have dramatic impacts in the region.  With current impacts of fracking on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems not fully understood and unknown chemicals being used in the process, is it time to proceed with rapid legislation for the immediate creation of jobs and profits, or should we proceed cautiously to ensure that proper regulations protect future water and air quality?  Maybe we should think of the past, when similar situations yielded devastating results to the environment.
Los Angeles at a time when personal gain prompted
individual property owners with separate mineral rights
to construct towers to extract oil without regard to now
locally extinct populations of salmon.
   Thinking back to the Iron Zoo, maybe those works of art were extremely telling.  Lifeless paintings are all we have left of many animals that have gone extinct because of human actions.  Hopefully we fully consider the implications of having minimal regulations in combination with widespread land and water degradation.  It isn’t just the fish that have a lot to lose…we rely on the very same watersheds and water for survival.

-Patrick Cooney

Read a follow up here on the outcome of the veto override in North Carolina, and how Captain America played a significant role.  Further, a licensed geologist noticed our series on fracking and gave us his perspective on the future of fracking in North Carolina.

Check out the great site of a friend and expert in Pennsylvania monitoring streams adjacent to fracking sites:

You will not be seeing live Carolina parakeets any time soon.
Works of art may be all we have
left of animals should we not consider the implications
of unregulated industry.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. pcooney says:

    Not long after posting this, Governor Bev Purdue vetoed the Fracking legislation in North Carolina.

    Her direct quote: “Our drinking water and the health and safety of North Carolina’s families are too important; we can’t put them in jeopardy by rushing to allow fracking without proper safeguards.”

  2. Lori Davias says:

    Thanks for writing on this. It's a big topic!
    I am glad to hear that your governor has said no to fracking for now. It is clear that there are still too many unknowns.
    Here in N. Pennsylvania things have been 'interesting' lately. Two weeks ago there was a methane migration situation in Union township that received some press. A horizontal well intersected one of the many old abandoned oil wells that we have in this region, and methane went up the old oil well and into the aquifer, and then blew a 40 ft geyser out the top of an old surface water well. The area is still closed off due to elevated methane in the air. There is currently 'low risk' (accd to DEP) to the streams, due to increased sedimentation/turbidity. But, hopefully formation water (frack water) doesn't eventually also migrate up to the stream. I hope to get access to this site today to see for myself.
    The PA DEP gets so many calls about increased sediment in streams associated with fracking that it almost can't keep up. It is also way understaffed. Lots of university/agency folks are looking at streams to find a 'smoking gun' but no one has found a direct negative link between fracking and aquatic life … yet. People are starting to look for biomarkers in fish and birds. Others are studying the changes that might happen to benthic invertebrate communities in watersheds that have wellpads.
    I think it may be a matter of long term landscape-level changes, like loss of forest, and wetlands and lower flows/higher temperatures in our (currently) exceptional value trout streams.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks to Governor Purdue for vetoing this incredibly irresponsible legislature! If her veto is not overruled and since proper safeguards will never exist for fracking, it seems that North Carolina's only hope lies in the hard lessons learned in other states like PA, WY, CO, etc…

  4. Excellent! We should all take heed, and action.

  5. Lori Davias says:

    Patrick! I just saw your link to my blog – thanks. Not needed though as since I began my new job I have not posted any new blogs! I was also finding it hard to write in a 'balanced' way. Perhaps I have some updates to craft…

  6. Wow, Patrick. This is so good. I wish we had run this in the magazine when I was there. Why didn’t I see this?!

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