by Neil Stalter | Zoom Out Mycology
We here at Zoom Out Mycology are celebrating soil awareness month! With that in mind, we’re spending our Thanksgiving holidays giving thanks for everything that soil does for us. Soil is incredibly important to ecosystems around the world, but it is also fundamental to many industries that support our modern lifestyles. I certainly don’t often think about how turning on the lights in my apartment will affect soil. However- New York City, where I live, gets the vast majority of its energy (roughly 50%) from natural gas.(1)
Finite resources in soil and natural gas
Attaining the non-renewable resource of natural gas can have direct and irreversible effects on soil which is another non-renewable resource. It’s these patterns of consumption that are putting soils around the world at risk, all with very little information or warning. While we produce and consume more and more in an effort to create the modern world we live in today, we are putting the world of tomorrow at stake. We can start to stem the tide with by turning our attention to the oft-ignored, but incredibly vital, dirt under our feet. For more info about consumption, production, how they’re related, and what we can do to help address overconsumption take a look at my colleague’s article “Consumers, Producers, and the Toll on the Planet.”
“Fracking”, or the process of harvesting natural gas, is a word that carries significant meaning to a lot of different people. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a means of getting natural gas resources from fissures in the ground far below our feet by drilling a well deep into the earth, and then shifting that well horizontally underground to access as much natural gas as possible with one well. This is visualized in the accompanying diagram. Water is then pumped into these wells at high pressure to push open the fissures so they release the natural gas trapped inside much more quickly. This water that is used to drill the well and collect the gas can accumulate a whole litany of hazardous chemicals on its way up and down the well. It also contains chemical additives that allow it to kill bacteria and dissolve certain minerals to aid in the process. These chemical additives are far from non-toxic, and have health effects ranging from skin irritation, to nervous system damage, to cancer and digestive system damage.(2)
Visual of the Fracking Process
After the natural gas is mined and retrieved, this water is waste. It has served its purpose, is too difficult and expensive to clean, and needs to be disposed of. Unfortunately, during the drilling process, as well as during wastewater disposal, there exists a very real possibility that this water escapes the well and contaminates groundwater and the soil on the surface. This isn’t terribly uncommon either. In 2011, one drilling company incurred 141 violations from the state of Pennsylvania; 24 of which involved well failures or underground leaks.(3) The amounts, or contents of these spills do not need to be disclosed by the company that owned the faulty well due to the possible revelation of “trade secrets.” A significant amount of these wells are also built on sites that are not best suited to create a safe drilling environment. Roughly 60% of wells occur on sloped land that is at risk to surface water movement and erosion, and 21% are built on wet, poorly draining soils.(4) These areas are at a much higher risk for spills, as well as at a higher risk for that spilled water to contaminate multiple areas and prevent effective reclamation of those sites for later use. The use of this method to reclaim natural gas from the earth is on the rise too; 6% of new wells were slated to use the hydrofracking method in 2000, but this percentage has increased to 42% as of 2010.(5) Since then, hydro fracking continues to grow as an energy production method. A map of this expansion in the US from 2000-2010 is included here, and also gives a good idea of where the areas of concern are.
This is all to turn on our lights at night. Many people, including some environmentalists, celebrate natural gas as a much more environmentally friendly energy alternative to coal. In fact, shale gas emits half the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to make a certain amount of energy when compared to coal.(6) Additionally, coal burning and mining is notorious for emitting toxic gases and elements into our air and soils. However, this change isn’t eliminating the problem so much as it’s changing it. Though burning natural gas might send less CO2 into our atmosphere, it relocates the soil and water pollution of energy creation to new parts of the country, and changes the composition of that pollution.
Wastewater disposal in fracking
In 2011, a gas well in Pennsylvania began spraying this wastewater at a much higher volume than could be handled by containment procedures. Seven families were told to evacuate their nearby homes, and it took response personnel 6 days to contain the leak.(2) Even after a leak like this is "contained", much of the environmental damage has been done. Pollution from the spill has already tainted water bodies groundwater, and left long-lasting toxic chemicals in soil that could take decades to dissipate.
We as consumers often don’t think about where our power comes from, as long as our lights turn on and our cars continue to charge. It can be difficult as a consumer to feel like we have any power (forgive the pun) over where our energy comes from. Certainly when I pay my bill it doesn’t say what percentage of my power is from natural gas, nuclear, or oil/coal. However, there are steps that we as consumers can take, as well as advocate for, to help our country make progress in this critical area.
As I’m sure you can imagine, solar panels carry very little risk of polluting soil or groundwater, but I digress. If you can afford, unlike myself, to install solar panels on the roof of your house -- that is by far the best way to “vote with your wallet” against fossil fuel pollution. However, for many, trying to dictate where our energy comes from can seem impossible. Electricity has become far from a luxury, and is now a necessity on par with drinking water. By advocating for safe and environmentally friendly production methods, as well as reducing our waste, we can begin to make changes about how our energy is produced. Many of these grassroots movements led to the official outlawing of hydraulic-fracking by Governor Cuomo in New York State in 2014.(7)
Before the State’s official ban in 2014, counties across Western and Southern New York had placed moratoria on hydro-fracking in the area due to public sentiment strongly against the practice.(8) This is considered a major win for the for the health of the environment and people in these parts of New York, and I agree. However, many in these areas would like to see the fracking ban lifted, and to welcome this production method as an economic boon to their communities. Many also argue that natural gas is a natural “middle-ground” between coal/oil and renewable energy.(9) However, the science does not back up the idea that natural gas harvesting is any better for the environment than oil and coal burning, and hydro-fracking, as it stands today, poses significant risk to the communities that allow it.
An Earthjustice video on the environmental impacts of fracking:
You can help us sustain and protect soil by drinking more tea!
Residents can join and support anti-fracking groups and movements in your community, and attend public hearings about the issue. Landowners can also refer to this document to learn what information energy companies are required to disclose to you in your state, including items like a Material Safety Data Sheet. Consumers can also write to their representatives and to energy companies and advocate for fracking best-practices in their communities. These include the use of non-toxic chemicals in water used in fracking, the removal of diesel (which the energy company Halliburton has stated does not enhance the natural gas retrieval process) from the list of allowable chemicals, and waste pit lining.(10)
Looking up where your energy comes from can be both interesting and surprising. We don’t need to feel powerless about where our energy comes from though; as consumers we can conserve energy use, and advocate for its sustainable production. The soil that covers our world, and the water that we drink every day are too important to risk. The next decade represents a flashpoint for the future of hydro-fracking in the United States, and communities can use the case of New York State as an example of successfully advocating for environmental health. After writing and researching this piece, I know that I’ll be thinking about soil every time I remember to turn the lights off when I leave my apartment, and I hope reading it helps you remember too. By working together towards a sustainable future, we can make sure that our planet and the planet of our children remains healthy and clean.
About the author:
Neil Stalter is currently a student at Columbia University in New York City pursuing his Masters in Environmental Science and Policy. Neil has a background in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Rochester. He's from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and has always been incredibly passionate about the environment, and solving environmental problems!
Our Environmental Science blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle!