In The Name Of Their Profits


by Mary Zhu –

In the name of their profits, the natural gas industry exerts control over segments of our government and its regulatory agencies. This is the theme of a series, “Drilling Down  about the contest between the hydrofracking industry and public interests (Ian Urbina, NY Times of 2/27, 3/2, 3/4/11).

This article summarizes the very important findings of the report and ends with a call to action to make government responsive to the needs of citizens, not corporate profits.

Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is mostly methane.  It is sequestered in shale formations thousands of feet below ground. Deposits in the US are abundant; it is used mostly to generate electricity; it fires our heaters and stoves. It produces less carbon dioxide per Kjoule of energy released than coal or oil.

High volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) injects, under high pressure, millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals (some carcinogenic) to break up rock formations to release the gas.  In the process, each well produces over a million gallons of wastewater containing the added carcinogens in addition to highly corrosive salts and carcinogens as benzene and radium, all of which are normal thousands of feet below ground.

Radium, a decay product of uranium, is water soluble. It is absorbed by plants and animals who drink or are otherwise exposed to radium contaminated water. It is harmless in the small concentrations found naturally. Hydrofracking was developed some ten years ago. Given the uncertainty of Middle Eastern oil and the recent mining, deep water drilling and nuclear reactor disasters, natural gas became the “safer” fuel. Thus, the number of hydrofracking wells in 2009 increased to nearly 500,000, a two fold increase since 2000.

Recently however, documentation has come to light of hazardous wastes in excess of what treatment plants could manage, benzene and toluene from thousands of new wells exceeding air quality standards and methane from wells, seeping into underground water supplies , causing bursts of flames from faucets.  An American Petroleum Institute confidential study in 1990, using “conservative assumptions,” stated radium in drilling wastewater discharged off the Louisiana coast posed “significant risks” of cancer for people eating fish from those waters regularly. Twenty years later, Pennsylvania and New York have thousands more of such wells discharging into much smaller bodies of water.

The inherent problems of hydrofracking are that no one knows a safe, practical way to dispose of the huge volumes of radioactive, toxic wastewater and the rapid increase in the number of wells and their waste products have overwhelmed the capacity of regulatory agencies. Additionally, the industry resorts to various strategies to limit the costs of toxic disposal, which do not contribute to their bottom line. All of this leads to environmental degradation.

Then there are practices that destroy both our environment and our democracy:

Industry controls the scope of EPA investigations. Current plans to study the risks of hydrofracking have been narrowed by pressure from Senators Inhofe and Coburn (Oklahoma), who are among the top 20 recipients of gas oil campaign monies. Urbina cites internal e-mails from EPA officials, scientists and lawyers saying they were pressured to limit their study by the environmental and energy staff at the White House.  This allegation was denied by the White House.

Industry controls what the EPA reports to Congress and to the public. In the 1980’s the EPA’s  recommendation for  tight monitoring of the hazardous wastes from oil and gas drilling was deleted  under pressure from the Reagan administration. The author of that study said, “The industry was going to get what it wanted…” In 2010, EPA’s call for a moratorium on hydrofracking in the NY City watershed was reversed to an approval. An EPA whistle blower said five of the seven members of that study panel were past or present employees of the oil and gas industry and the released conclusion was unsupported.

The gas and oil industries have long benefited from special legislative treatment.  They are exempt from certain aspects of  1.the Clean Air Act limiting emissions from toxic air pollutants, 2. the Clean Water Act limiting industrial discharges into rivers lakes and streams,  3. laws governing the handling of hazardous wastes, 4. the Superfund Act which holds polluting industries  responsible for cleanup costs  5. the Safe Drinking Water Act  6. segments of the oil/gas industry are exempt from evaluating their environmental impacts. These exemptions place the industry above regulation.

Elected officials receiving campaign contributions from the oil and gas corporations make industry favorable decisions.  Tim Corbett, governor of Pennsylvania took more campaign monies from the gas industry than all of his competitors combined. In office, he reversed a previous decision to limit wells on state land; this allowed the number of wells on public land to increase from 25 to 10,000. Senator Coburn, mentioned above, wants to eliminate the input of critics of hydrofracking from the EPA.

There are many other industries that direct public policy in the name of their profits; they pervert many of our institutions, including our banking, medical and transportation systems, and most importantly, our government. With knowledge must come action.  Please join Big Sheet Cinema, Democracy For America (Howard Dean’s action group) and Take Back Our Democracy (a Davis based activist group) in a screening of “Gasland,” the award winning documentary on hydrofracking and a plan for action, on April 21 at 6:30 PM,  Stephens Library in Davis. Contact:


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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