Can Fracking Turn Land into ‘Lifeless Moonscapes’?

In 2008, while closely examining a hydraulic fracturing operation in West Virginia, researchers at the U.S. Forest Service found that the fracking fluids near the well pad were killing trees. And after spraying some additional fluids around the area to test the environmental impact, they saw devastating results (picture above):

Almost a year later, in May 2009, the number of trees included in the tally increased to 147, representing 11 species (Table 4). Half of these trees had no live foliage, and two-thirds had less than 35 percent full crown. Although there was some sprouting of tree seedlings and ground vegetation within the perimeter, there were still significant areas of dead ground vegetation in May 2009. Nearby trees outside the application area were nearly fully leafed out and green.

The study illustrates the very real environmental risks associated with fracking, again showing why the public should know what kind of chemicals are in fracking mixtures. The study itself notes: “clearly, a better knowledge of the chemical makeup of the drilling and hydrofracking fluids is needed.”

Although five states have passed laws mandating fracking fluid disclosure, natural gas companies in each of the states successfully lobbied for a provision allowing trade secret exemptions. BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips continue to fight fracking fluid chemical disclosure, and Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, and Halliburton have filed for multiple trade exemptions. In Arkansas, eight companies have begun drilling since the law’s enactment, and all eight filed for numerous trade secret exemptions.

After the release of the U.S. Forest Service study, one expert commented that “the explosion of shale gas drilling in the East has the potential to turn large stretches of public lands into lifeless moonscapes.”

The “lifeless moonscapes” description may be a bit much given that gas companies aren’t just going around spraying fracking fluids on trees. But there’s clearly a major environmental impact associated with using these chemicals and the public has a right to know what they are.

— Raj Salhotra

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