This farm once belonged to my family,
‘Til the man from the company came,
Said: “we’ll give you good money if you let us drill.
Now don’t you wanna sign your name?
Ooh, don’t you wanna sign your name?
We’re looking for gas and for oil,
And you know what that spells.”
I should have known, that we were not alone
We were there with the devil himself.
“It’s getting late, why do you hesitate?
Now what could be the harm?
Your mineral rights are so far out of sight,
A mile down under your farm,
They’re mile down under your farm”.
They talked so fine, that paper I did sign
You would have signed as well
The voice in my head, and the things it said
Just as sweet the devil himself.
And when those wheels started turning,
Here are the things I learned:
Animals found dead on the ground
And my water really burns.
Oh, how my water burns.
I got money now, and I got poison;
I cannot find my health.
You always get more than you bargain for
When you deal with the devil himself.
words and music ©Doug Hendren 2013
What’s this song about?
At the present time, official U.S. domestic energy (and economy) projections are focused very heavily on the technology of “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing of shale which contains deposits of oil and natural gas. The technology is not new, but was not economically feasible until recently. In the past few years, wide application of fracking has given us access to such large reserves of both natural gas and oil that many are boasting of US “Energy Independence”.
Why fracking is problematic. Three big reasons come to mind: 1) Water contamination; 2) “Fugitive” methane emissions; 3) Market distortion. This song mainly concerns the first issue, poisoning our water supply.
1) Water contamination: As reported by Associated Press on Jan 6, 2014, well water contamination has been confirmed in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Texas. Fracking involves many thousands of individual wells. Prior to the recent New York state moratorium on fracking, an estimated 34,000 to 95,000 wells were envisioned in the state. Each well requires millions of gallons of water, and tens of thousands of gallons of “fracking chemicals“, many of which are toxic or carcinogenic. The well shafts are drilled through the aquifers (typically about 1,000 feet below the surface), go down to the level of the fossil-rich shale (5,000 feet or more below the surface). At a depth of a mile or more, numerous explosions are detonated, breaking up the shale and allowing the trapped fossil resources to flow. Chemicals are forced down the well casings under enormous pressure, including acids, rust inhibitors, and pesticides, and sometimes petroleum distillates, such as benzene and toluene.1
An estimated 6% of the well casings fail within the first year, which means both the fracking chemicals and the oil and gas deposits can flow into the aquifers, causing permanent contamination. Sooner or later, say some, they all leak. Numerous instances have been reported of contaminated wells, sick people and dead livestock from contaminated water. Given the speed at which this technology has proliferated, it is prudent to assume that reports to date are only the tip of the iceberg. Public awareness of the risk of water contamination has been raised by the films Gasland, Promised Land (with Matt Damon), and most recently Gasland II.
A poisoned well is a bit like lung cancer. In most cases, there is simply no cure. Charging ahead with fracking technology in its current state, based on the supposed advantages of cheap energy, without considering the enormous “externalized” cost of poisoned aquifers and toxic farmland, is short-sighted, or criminal, or both.
2) Methane release: The climate argument for natural gas is based on the fact that, when burned, methane produces only half as much CO2 as an energy-equivalent amount of coal. So far, true. When the whole cycle is examined, however, methane (natural gas) is every bit as bad as coal, and likely worse, as a 2011 study from Cornell University concluded. So-called “fugitive” methane emissions, or leaks into the atmosphere, were estimated at about 6% of the total output of a well. Methane is much more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 (over 100X stronger over 100 years, and 33X stronger over a 20-year period). Analyzing the gas industry’s carbon footprint in this manner gives its contribution to the US carbon footprint as roughly 40-45%, rather than the small 2-3% footprint which the industry claims.
Natural gas in its present form has been hailed as a “clean fuel” mainly for political reasons. In fact, without radical improvements, it appears no cleaner than coal.
3) Market Distortion. The true cost of natural gas is much greater than its market price. Abandonment of farms and territories with poisoned aquifers, as well as climate costs attributable to methane emissions are all part of the price we, and our children and grandchildren, will all pay for a few years of cheap market prices. In the meantime, the temporarily cheap gas sets an artificially low market price against which truly clean alternatives, like solar and wind, must compete. Fortunately, renewables technologies have made remarkable advances in recent years, and are holding their own against very unreasonable odds. As my song emphasizes, if you have “money and poison”, and lose your health, then you will know you made an error in calculating the profitability of fracking. Our leaders in the United States do not seem to recognize this yet. Now please share this with your neighbors! In order for true market capitalism to work properly, the true cost of each alternative must be factored in. Just as the true cost of gasoline includes the cost of the large part of our military which is devoted primarily to securing and monitoring our oil supplies (i.e. our presence in the Middle East), so also the true cost of natural gas includes the disastrous effects this technology is likely to have on our climate and our drinking water.
1 Some material from this passage drawn from Steingraber S, Raising Elijah (2011), Da Capo Press, pp.270-1
Drilling Contamination Found in Well Water in 4 States (AP report, Jan 5, 2014)
The Fracking Song – My Water’s on Fire Tonight. (Good explanation and fun !)