Friday, February 03, 2012

What an embarrassment.

The average citizen in Maryland's First Congressional District might be excused for not knowing what hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is all about. It is taking place mostly a couple of hundred miles away in the mountains of Pennsylvnia. Gas companies are trying like the devil to tap into the Marcellus and Utica Shale Formations, which, taken together cover portions of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia.

A few years back I found myself in Pinedale, Wyoming, which is nowhere near the Eastern Shore. The air was thick with the acrid smell of oil and gas development. I saw with my own two eyes how an intact sage-brush ecosystem could seemingly overnight be converted into an industrial complex. I heard from biologists how the Green River Mule Deer herd had been hammered, with losses at the time estimated at 50%. I heard how the tall oil rigs, located in a valley where the highest natural thing was a hip-high clump of sage, had created artificial perches for hawks and falcons, who were proceeding to have their way with the threatened sage grouse, namely by having them for dinner. There was nothing that the oil and gas development wasn't impacting.

(The picture above, courtesy of the Wyoming Wildlife Council, is of the Jonah oil and gas field in Western Wyoming)

On that same trip to Wyoming, a range biologist with the Bureau of Land Management explained to our group of sportsmen-conservationists that the gas didn't form a giant pool below the ground; it instead occurs in disparate pockets throughout the bedrock (in the case of Pennsylvania, the bedrock is the Marcellus Shale). Drilling into disparate pockets of gas doesn't make much sense from an efficiency standpoint, so gas companies blast massive quantities of sand, water and chemicals into the bedrock. This helps to consolidate the pockets of gas, making them much more efficient to reach.

A few short years ago, not many people in this country knew much about 'fracking." I was fortunate (or unfortunate, as the case may be) to be working on energy issues on public land for a hunting and fishing conservation organization, so I was one of the few people who had heard of this process. While Dick Cheney was living at the Naval Observatory he succeeded in exempting fracking fluid (sand, water, chemicals) from the Safe Drinking Water Act; so all those oil and gas companies were not required to disclose precisely what chemicals were included in the fracking fluid. One of the leading hydraulic fracturing companies in the world is a company you might have heard of: Halliburton. Dick Cheney was Halliburton's CEO prior to being selected, err, selecting himself, to be George Bush's Vice President.

This exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act is critically important to keep in mind, because gas wells are drilled very deep; sometimes, thousands of feet deep. The gas wells almost always intersect with groundwater aquifers, some wells intersect several aquifers before they reach their downward terminus. These aquifers are like rivers of freshwater that run underground; tens of millions of Americans get their water from wells that tap into underground aquifers. As gas wells are 'fracked,' that dubious mix of sand, water and chemicals is blasted through the groundwater flows (and everything else, besides) at an incredibly high pressure, completely changing the geologic makeup of the substrate. It is one of the more destructive processes one can imagine; but since it all happens underground, its fairly easy to ignore.

Until the Academy Award nominated film Gasland was released. Much like Super Size Me before it, Gasland was one of these documentaries that kind of caught fire and became a must-see amongst a significant portion of the general public (at least the portion that is paying any attention at all). One of the more poignant images from the movie was the footage of rural Pennsylvanians lighting their tap water on fire. Methane from the fracked gas wells all around them had leaked into their water supply. A few homes had exploded from the buildup of methane; in 2004, three people were killed in such an explosion. Fracking had essentially provided the methane with new pathways in which to travel, and it was making houses and whole communities unlivable. Gasland was an important contribution to the knowledge base, and put fracking on the radar screen of millions of people.

A few days ago, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, chaired by none other than First District Congressman Andy Harris, held a hearing on fracking. The intention of the hearing was to discredit a three year study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which showed that the drinking water of the town of Pavilion, Wyoming had been made flammable and undrinkable because of fracking. Below is a quote from the testimony of Mr. James B. Martin, Regional Administrator for the EPA:

In the summer of 2010, EPA constructed two deep monitoring wells to sample water in the aquifer at and below the depths of drinking water wells. Phases three and four of the investigation involved taking samples from these monitoring wells, as well as from selected domestic and livestock wells. The results, discussed in the draft report issued on December 8, 2011, indicate that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing as conducted in this area. Analysis of samples taken from the deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of benzene, methane, and synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids.

Josh Fox, the guy who directed Gasland had every intention of filming Mr. Martin's testimony, as well as the testimony of the other witnesses, and the statements of the Representatives who comprise the Subcommittee. However, Republican members of the Subcommittee objected to Mr. Fox's filming of the hearing, and Chairman Harris, the First District's own, had Mr. Fox arrested and removed from the premises by the US Capitol Police.

I have now watched the video of the arrest, and I have read many of the press accounts of the arrest and the circumstances surrounding the event. Members of the media are frequently allowed to video tape hearings. Indeed, the hearing in question was being filmed (and broadcast via the Internet) by the Committee itself. You can see an archived webcast of the hearing at the link below. If the filming is done quietly, and does not interrupt the flow of the hearing, it is generally allowed and no questions are asked. Chairman Harris and his Republican committee mates decided that the purpose of the hearing, to pretend that a long-term EPA study that indicated there were all kinds of problems with fracking was bunk, didn't mesh well with having a filmmaker in the room who seemed hellbent on holding Andy Harris and his ilk accountable.

Andy Harris is the proud product of the Tea Party, a movement that if it is anything, is not afraid to get in the face of decision makers when it thinks something is haywire. Remember the health care town hall meetings from a few summers back? They were about one hundred times more 'disruptive' than anything Josh Fox did earlier this week. Imagine for a second if Matt Drudge wanted to film a hearing on health care chaired by a Democrat. Would Mr. Harris scream with indignation if the chair insisted on having Drudge escorted from the room in handcuffs? I hope the people of the First District are paying attention as their Congressman plays a leading role in a concerted attempt to sweep an important issue right under the rug. There are chemicals in the water, and the good doctor says drink up.


Jay Clark said...

This guy is such a douche that you can't even e-mail him if you don't live in his district. I wanted to voice my "displeasure" with his treatment of the Constitution. F*cking tea baggers - "Oh, the Constitution is absolute!" -- until someone does something within their rights that they don't approve of. What an embarrassment to Maryland this prick is. Get him out of there!

River Mud said...

The day will soon come when Andy Harris has got to put his cards on the table re: ag subsidies in the farm bill.

To represent his district would mean to support increased commodity and conservation funding in the new farm bill.

To represent his tea party donors would mean objecting to the farm bill as federal pork and socialized agriculture.

He's supposedly a brilliant surgeon. Hope he's smart enough to figure his way out of that one - a debate in which a simple, "NO!" is not sufficient.