Long time readers know how I feel about Fracking.
I marched in the front lines when my city worked to ban it – because whatever else you may think about it, I think we can probably all agree that it doesn’t belong next to schools, homes and hospitals.
It is a heavy industrial activity and if I am not allowed to burn tires in my backyard because it affects the air quality of my neighbors, or pour motor oil into street drains because it affects the water quality of my town, then fracking doesn’t belong there either and for much the same reasons.
Let’s pretend for a moment though that I thought fracking was a safe, clean way to extract a safe, clean fuel from the earth so that we could all continue our rampant and abusive consumption unhindered.
Even if I believed that, what I saw this weekend would still inspire me to write to my legislators and beg them – literally BEG them – to MAKE IT STOP!
I took my family to North Colorado (Soon to be it’s very own state so they can DRILL BABY DRILL! With guns. And none of that marijuana stuff.) to see the Pawnee National Grasslands.
I haven’t been up there since middle school when I took a trip with my class for a week.
I remembered it being hot, dry and barren.
I remember the wee ghost town near Crow Valley and the cemetery where we did grave rubbings and the strange little museum/gift shop.
I remembered wandering through the arroyos toward the buttes – trying to catch lizards, joking about rattlesnakes, filling my pockets with cool rocks.
I don’t think we made it to the butte, we were too busy mucking about and pulling pranks.
This trip was a little different, I was with my kids, my dogs and my hubby. None of them had ever been out that way before.
We picked it because of its barrenness – we wanted to go somewhere we could let the dogs (and the kids) run wild and free for a bit.
We got that. But first we had to drive through frack central to get there.
Now – a little history about the grasslands. Many years ago the US government gave that land away to settlers. They homesteaded it to anyone who was willing to try farming it.
A few folk came out and tried their hand.
The problem is that there’s NO WATER. The people who moved in couldn’t grow anything. Not wheat, not corn, nothing.
After a few years and some famine, the government bought the land back and put it in trust. It became the Pawnee National Grasslands – named after the only people who’d ever managed to survive there – the Pawnee.
Calling it grasslands is… generous. Deceptive.
Sort of a joke.
Scrublands might be more accurate.
Desolate Wasteland works too.
These days – Gaslands might be the most accurate.
Seriously – it’s just miles and miles of hard scrabble life, barely holding onto existence.
I don’t believe in God, but I could feel the “grass” and tiny shrubs praying for rain.
Having just finished reading Holes by Louis Sachar with my kids – yeah. That.
So, perhaps it is understandable that the government has turned this land over to the oil and gas barons. Perhaps it is understandable that the few private owners left out there signed oil and gas leases so they could finally reap some benefit from the land.
In a society that measures success in dollars and values only things that can be bought and sold – perhaps it makes sense to extract the one materially valuable thing from this stretch of dry, empty earth.
On the other hand, if land is valued, not for what it can yield, but simply for what it is – home to desert shrubs, rabbits, rattlesnakes, fox, rare hardy flowers… If land is valued for the enjoyment it provides… Well, we might have just killed a really nice place.
Here is what we saw as we drove out to the trail head of the Pawnee Buttes.
First, we saw frack pad after frack pad including this one with 16 tanks on one pad! (Sorry for the bad picture, it was taken out the window at highway speeds.)
We saw keep out signs leading to what I can only describe as fracking compounds.
Then we started to see the burn off fires -
Most of these are only burning off methane – but… Then again, in North Dakota they’re actually burning off the natural gas itself! So while we’re all being told that we NEED natural gas and it’s going to save us, blah, blah, blah – the oil and gas companies are literally throwing it away, because it isn’t profitable enough for them to bother with!
So again, let’s pretend that I think fracking is safe and environmentally sound and a good way to access a much-needed resource… Oh man, it’s getting harder and harder to pretend, isn’t it? Even if all they’re doing is burning off methane – THAT ISN’T ENVIRONMENTALLY SOUND!!! (Sorry for cyber shouting. I get a little worked up about this type of heinous frackery.)
And then… And then the thing that we all hear about and which the companies all swear NEVER happens because it’s illegal and stuff. (But ya know… it’s only illegal if you’re caught and when you’re in a state that has 17 inspectors for 35,000 active wells – yes you read that right – well, illegal is sort of a joke isn’t it. And when the fines for breaking the laws are less than an hour’s profit…)
We had the “pleasure” of driving behind this fracking truck as it dumped water.
We have no idea if the water was “flowback” aka used, contaminated, “fracked” water, or if it was fresh, clean water.
Either way, it’s an issue.
Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper recently sent an SOS to President Obama because after ten or so years of drought, Colorado is facing a water crisis. We’ve got a “gap” in our supply. Yet, this year, oil and gas companies were able to outbid farmers for water rights. The problem there is two-fold – 1. We kind of need FOOD to live. 2. Water that is used for agriculture gets recycled and reused year after year after year via this little thing called the Water Cycle. Water used for fracking breaks this cycle. Water used for fracking is, largely, removed from the water cycle FOREVER. Water used for fracking is used TO EXTINCTION. So… Perhaps not the best use of water in a place that has a water shortage?
If that truck was dumping fracked water – that’s an issue because whatever they put in fracking fluid, along with all the salts and other yummness that comes up out of the ground in the flowback water contaminates the water to the point that if it’s spilled on the ground, nothing will ever grow there again. It literally kills the earth.
Even if it was clean unfracked water – that truck carries somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 gallons of water. Water that farmers didn’t get this year. Water that the fire fighters didn’t get this year. Water that homes didn’t get this year. Water that Governor Hickenlooper is whining to the president we don’t have this year!
And then, because I wasn’t already emotional enough, we rounded the corner, parked out car at the trail head, looked out at the awesome Pawnee Buttes
then we looked to our right and saw the biggest open waste water pit I’ve seen yet.
In case you don’t know, these open waste water pits are, well they’re exactly like what they sound like.
The oil and gas company takes the fracked water and pours it into a (in this case GIANT!) lined pit.
The hope (cross your fingers and clap if you believe!) is that the contaminated water won’t seep through the plastic liner, won’t spill over the rim of the pit, and won’t otherwise escape the confines of the pit – EXCEPT via evaporation! Because, um, only the “good” part of the so poisonous that it kills everything it touches water will evaporate? (I’m being snarky because despite my activism and my questions to people who supposedly know this – I’ve never gotten a good answer to why water that isn’t safe for living things is allowed to be poured into giant open pit that doesn’t even have to have fencing around it so that the water can evaporate into the air we all breathe.) The water is only supposed to stay there until someone comes to pick it up and haul it away to an injection well where it will be dumped so deep into the ground that it will (remember – clap if you believe!) NEVER resurface or reach the water table again.
This practice has been directly and irrefutably linked to increased seismic sctivity – you know, earthquakes! So, that’s exciting – if you used to think California had all the fun…
Basically, if you want to know why some people are against fracking, this supposedly safe, benign activity that results in cheap, abundant fuel – take a drive out to the Pawnee National Grasslands. You’ll see (almost) everything that’s wrong with fracking in one single location.
1. In our short drive out there we saw close to 50 giant tanker trucks burning up the diesel fuel as they shuttled water back and forth.
2. Whatever else you think about fracking – it’s wasteful. Aside from the 500+ tanker trucks of water required to fracture the well – all burning diesel as they go – there’s the methane burn off – and sometimes the natural gas burn off too. We don’t even require that they harness ALL the useable fuel from their drilling.
3. And then there’s the water. Let’s leave aside the issue of people lighting their tap water on fire because methane from the fracture has leached into their wells – and just focus on the known quantity of water being used TO EXTINCTION every time a well gets fracked.
4. And then there’s the super rad open waste pits that dot the area around these fracking pads. No fences to keep animals (or kids) out. Just awesomely contaminated water evaporating into our air! Unless, of course, it spills or leaks into the ground!
One trip to the grasslands to show off a previously untouched tract of Colorado desert and all I saw was waste and gluttony and hubris.
There was one other thing worth driving out for though.
Sarcasm and snark aside – we do have a choice – what legacy do we want to leave our children?