A 10-year joyride to energy security – the poisoned progress of Fracker Barons


In January 2001, days after taking office as the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush convened a closed-door task force to confront the country’s addiction to foreign oil. Since the early 1970s, American motorists (and administrations) had ridden the loop-de-loop of peak demand: shortages, price spikes and the market manipulations of OPEC’s billionaire princes.

Two-thirds of the crude being refined here for gas arrived on overseas freighters, and the industry’s bids for new offshore formations were blocked by an executive order from Bush’s father. A bold plan was called for, including “environmentally sound production of energy for the future.” Or so went the rhetoric in the announcement that heralded the group’s formation. But Bush named Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, to lead the effort — “Can’t think of a better man to run it,” he said — and any hope for a rational, climate-sparing program went up in a flare of hydrocarbons.

The vice president sat down with supplicants from the fossil-fuel sector and gold-star donors to his campaign. For months, he or his small staff met in secret with the likes of James Rouse, the then-vice president of Exxon Mobil Corp.; Enron’s Kenneth Lay; Red Cavaney, the then-president of the American Petroleum Institute; and dozens of lobbyists and sen-ior executives from the coal, mining, electric and nuclear sectors.

What Cheney sent the president, four months later, was a policy essentially written by the barons themselves: a massive expansion of domestic drilling on federally owned lands; tens of billions of dollars in annual subsidies to Big Oil; and wholesale exemptions to oil-and-gas firms from environmental laws and oversight. In essence, Cheney’s program turned the Department of the Interior into a boiler-room broker for Big Oil, and undercut the power of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cheney’s plan was such a transparent coup for Big Oil that it took four years, two elections and the Republican capture of both houses of Congress to make it to Bush’s desk as legislation. Along the way, the bill gained a crucial addendum, known today as the “Halliburton loophole”: a carte-blanche exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for an emergent technique called fracking.

A form of extraction dating back to the Civil War, when miners used nitroglycerin to blow holes in oil-soaked caves (a subsequent version, in the 1960s, used subterranean nukes to fracture rock), fracking has since evolved into a brute but nimble method for blasting oil and gas deposits that couldn’t be recovered by conventional derricks, at least not at a rate that made them profitable.

The process, perfected and marketed by Halliburton, shoots huge amounts of fluid at very high pressure down a mile or more of pipe to break the rock. That fluid, a trademarked secret called “slickwater” that has toxic solvents, is mixed with a million gallons of water, roughly a fifth of which come barreling back as wastewater. It’s a desperately dirty job, marked by horrors of all kinds: blowouts of oil wells near houses and farms; badly managed gas wells flaring uncapped methane, one of the planet’s most climate-wrecking pollutants.

Then there’s pollution of the eight-wheeled sort: untold truck trips to service each fracking site. Per a recent report from Colorado, it takes 1,400 truck trips just to frack a well — and many hundreds more to haul the wastewater away and dump it into evaporation ponds. That’s a lot of diesel soot per cubic foot of gas, all in the name of a “cleaner-burning” fuel, which is how the industry is labeling natural gas.

“Fracking moved the oil patch to people’s backyards, significantly increasing the pollution they breathed in small towns,” says Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Basically, it industrialized rural regions, and brought them many of the related health problems we were used to seeing in cities.”

Mall, who had just moved to Colorado when the frack rigs arrived, en masse, in 2006, soon began hearing anguished reports from communities overwhelmed by dirt and fumes. At first, it was all direct-symptom stuff: bloody noses, coughs and rashes, migraine headaches and such. Eventually, though, worse news came from Garfield County, where gas drilling exploded, figuratively and otherwise, in the rural western slope of the state.

Residents with cancers and neurological disorders; people passing out from exposure to chemical leaks; wells that blew out and would burn all day, while more than 100 million cubic feet of gas leaked into Divide Creek, which flows to the Colorado River.

“It’s the long-haul exposure that nails you — I watched people get progressively sicker,” says filmmaker Debra Anderson, who shot a documentary in Garfield County that recorded the devastation of towns with names like Silt and Rifle; her film Split Estate won an Emmy and became essential viewing in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, as the frackers moved east. “As soon as it aired, we were deluged with calls from communities,” she says. “Same story, same symptoms, different town.”

Workers found dead atop separator tanks from exposure to wastewater fumes. Cows birthing stillborn calves on ranches near well-pad clusters. Children with cancers — leukemia, lymphoma — in places with no known clusters.

“For a while, all we had were anecdotal reports, which the industry bashed as ‘bad science,’ ” says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior health scientist for the NRDC. “But in the past few years, there’s been a torrent of studies finding worrisome air pollution stemming from oil and gas sites.

The impacts of this pollution are regional, not just local, meaning it can make you really sick from miles away,” and that the people most susceptible to its toxic effects are the ones at either end of the life spectrum: “fetuses and the elderly.”

Except for the rare leaders who have said no to frackers — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin — Big Gas has been on a 10-year joyride unlike any in American annals. There are now more than 1 million active oil and gas wells in the country, and our oil companies posted profits of $600 billion during the Bush years. President Obama, who promised to cap and trade emissions while building out America’s post-oil future, instead has presided over the breakneck expansion of fossil-fuel drilling. Under his watch, U.S. production has risen each year — up 35 percent for oil, 18 percent for gas — and enabled the country to barge past the Saudis as the world’s lead producer of oil and gas. (He also broke his word to end tax cuts for oilmen; those subsidies are up nearly 50 percent since he took office.)

Whatever Cheney’s doing now, he must look upon his handiwork and smile. OPEC has lost its whip hand over oil prices, SUVs are selling off the lot again, and Obama takes victory laps because we now produce more oil than we import. Glad tidings for all – except the people in more than 30 states who wake up to the thump of fracking rigs. To them, the message from Washington has been tacit but final: You folks are on your own out there.

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