Fracking equipment
Photo: Richard Foulser
Picture an L-shaped hole in the earth that descends more than a mile and then bends sharply, extending another mile. That's what a fracked well often looks like. Its shape—its tremendous horizontal reach—signifies our newly minted, all-access pass to previously inaccessible resources. After the hole has been drilled, millions of gallons of fluids (primarily water, but also any of 600 or so chemicals, including acids and detergents) are blasted into subterranean rock. As the earth breaks apart in fissures and cracks, minerals escape in abundance and rise to the surface. Thanks to horizontal drilling and fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing), we've discovered far more oil and gas in this country than anyone ever imagined we had. Getting to it—and fast—has become a national obsession.

While no one outside the energy industry had even heard of fracking 20 years ago, the idea dates back to the 1860s. That's when a former Union army lieutenant colonel named Edward A.L. Roberts shot an explosive device called the Roberts Torpedo down a Pennsylvania well, increasing its productivity by as much as 1,200 percent. In the 1960s scientists upped the ante with Project Gasbuggy, dropping a 29-kiloton nuclear device more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima into a natural gas well in New Mexico, only to conclude that the gas became radioactive. Hydraulic fracturing (using primarily gasoline) began quietly in the late 1940s. But it wasn't until the 1990s that advancements in directional drilling—i.e., proceeding sideways or diagonally—plus more effective fluids allowed a Texas oil magnate named George Mitchell to force oil and gas from previously impermeable shale. A new American energy rush was officially on.

Nearly two decades later, fracking operations clutter the American landscape, and an estimated 90 percent of all new wells drilled in Wyoming will eventually be fracked, says Grant Black, supervisor of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "Hydraulic fracturing has a strong, positive effect on the economy," he says. A recent industry-funded report claims that in 2012 the boom supported more than 2.1 million jobs nationally; produced $74 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues; and boosted the income of every American household by $1,200—the result of cheaper energy costs directly linked to our new production. These numbers are growing: By 2025, the report suggests, frackers could be enriching your bank account by more than $3,500 annually. They're also offering the very real possibility of energy independence: We've already surpassed Russia as the planet's foremost producer of natural gas, and by 2020, we may best Saudi Arabia to become the largest oil producer, too.

But to people like Deb Thomas, $1,200 can look more like hush money than a stimulus plan. In Wyoming, she says, animals are getting sick, headaches come on viciously, cancer-causing chemicals are found in the air, some residents say their senses of smell and taste have been wiped out, and breathing itself has been compromised. These things don't just happen by chance, she'll tell you: In rural areas where no other pollutants are typically present, the only thing that could be causing clustered illnesses is the wells.

"Many of the chemicals associated with drilling and fracking affect the brain in one way or another," confirms Theo Colborn, PhD, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), an organization that researches the health effects of low-level exposure to chemicals in the environment. "People can get headaches, become dizzy; they get nauseous and throw up. Over time, the nerves can break down, so people start getting the wrong signals at the ends of their toes, in their fingers, hands, and arms. That's terribly painful. When it has reached that point, it's beyond where it can be reversed."

Energy executives, of course, insist that fracking is safe, and that the accusations from activists—Matt Damon cowrote a movie about fracking, Promised Land; Yoko Ono has released antifracking videos on YouTube—are naïve. "When people say they're against fracking, they're really against oil and gas development," says Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana, a company with a major stake in Wyoming's oil and gas development. "They have concerns, and those need to be addressed. But oftentimes these people are in New York or areas where there has not been drilling, so it's a new activity to them. An industrial activity."

Thomas agrees that the issue is bigger than just fracking. "The problems start the minute a hole is punched in the ground," she says, citing semis, noise, and toxic fluids. Fracking just accounts for a lot more wells. And with leading state politicians firmly in the pro-fracking camp—it's putting people back to work, after all—regulation can be lax. Not even the EPA is accountable: A provision in the 2005 energy bill known as the "Halliburton Loophole" (championed by former Halliburton CEO and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who grew up in Wyoming and owns a home there) bars the agency from regulating the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The result: Energy companies are innocent until proven guilty, and it's left to the people of Wyoming to demonstrate a connection between oil and gas development and their health. Luckily, one of them has volunteered for the job.

Next: Taking action in the community


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