Could fracking finally kill off rural America?

US fracking map

If drillers get their way, rural America will have no escape from fracking. U.S. map showing waterways (in blue) over shale gas plays (in red). Photo: Gasland 2.

Gasland 2, the sequel to Josh Fox’s documentary about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, introduces a frightening image.

It’s not another money shot of tap water on fire, though the water well hose lit up by the owner of a multimillion dollar home in Parker County, Texas is a wonder.

Nor is the most frightening image an internal gas industry memo labeling residents of small towns in Pennsylvania or New York State an “insurgency” that must be put down with PSYOPS techniques honed by the military in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most frightening image in Gasland 2 is a map of the United States covered with potential fracking sites.

The United States of Fracking

Look at the map. It’s hard to find a state whose water supply doesn’t originate in or cross through a place that the industry would like to frack.

So what? The U.S. government says that fracking can be done without harm to groundwater. And the industry claims that no study has ever proven that fracking has contaminated one single water supply.

Don’t believe them, says Fox, with plenty of science to back him up. Using that science, the Gasland 2 website gives a clear answer to the question “Is fracking safe?”

No. Fracking, as currently practiced across the United States, poses serious risks to the health and safety of communities and the environment.

Water supplies across the country have been contaminated by fracking. There have been multiple documented cases where natural gas, or methane, has migrated out of wells and into underground aquifers. The fracking process also forces gallons of chemically-treated water into the ground along with numerous byproducts including chemicals, naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), dissolved solids, liquid hydrocarbons including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, and heavy metals.

Wanna be a farmer? Fuggedaboutit.

The implications of fracking America go far beyond whether your natural gas bill stays low or some bedraggled folks in flyover states get somewhat more bedgraggled because they have to have their drinking water trucked in.

It’s not just Detroit that has gone bankrupt. Today, urban industrialism looks more ready than ever to collapse under the weight of its own staggering financial, ecological and spiritual debt.

Rural areas have had it tough for decades, losing family farms to industrial agriculture, losing Main Street shops to Walmart and losing young people to the allure of the big city. Yet these days, judging by all the back-to-the-landers, homesteaders and greenhorns fleeing corporate cubicles for fields of produce and pigs, you’d think that rural America was on the verge of a renaissance, ready to step up and provide the nation with wholesome food, natural carbon sequestration and a sense of community that our alienated citizenry yearns for.

Then — bam! — enter the frackers to put the kabbash on this happy ending and put rural areas back in their place as sacrifice zones for polluting industries.

By contaminating water supplies from sea to shining sea, the industry’s final desperate gambit to keep the fossil fuel party going for a few more years could render much of rural America uninhabitable. As despoiled rural communities shut down, families will have no choice but to seek housing and work in the city. And the cruel joke at the end of it all is that natural gas may turn out to be a bubble, with fracking ruining millions of acres of perfectly good land for only a few years of gas supply. The wells may run dry in five or ten years and the drillers will take the money and run. But the pollution will remain for decades.

Meanwhile, urban escapees will have to forget their dreams of moving to a rural area, buying a little farm and building a self-sufficient homestead. If fracking renders large areas of countryside unfit for sustainable farming, not to mention plain old human habitation, disaffected downtown office workers may have little choice but to stay in their cubicles, shut up and do their work — at least until the next round of layoffs.

Making the world safe for frack-ocracy

An image nearly as scary as the U.S. map is a corresponding map of the world showing shale plays that industry would like to sink its teeth into.

But don’t think the Obama Administration, which touts natural gas as a clean fuel that will help reduce climate emissions, is just sitting around waiting for other nations to get into fracking. Fortunately for top U.S. gas drillers such as ExxonMobil, Chesapeake Energy and Anadarko, the administration has recruited the U.S. taxpayer to help pry open reluctant markets like Poland and India through the State Department’s Global Shale Gas Initiative (now known as the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program).

Watch the Gasland 2 trailer. Then, find a screening near you or get a copy of the DVD to watch at home.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. W. R. Flynn says

    Excellent review. I saw “Gasland 2” at a neighborhood MoveOn gathering last weekend with my oldest daughter. The movie did an outstanding job of assessing and portraying the ill effects of this madness. Plus, the idea that anyone taking action against fracking is participating in an insurgency is ominous, to say the least.

    The only element I would have liked to have seen expanded upon a bit more is why the NG industry is bothering with the short-term gains from fracking in the first place. Readers here know it’s due to oil and NG depletion. The easy NG and oil is taken. The game is now a strictly a matter of finding out where the last of it is hidden and extracting it from those nooks and crannies at any cost. And that’s why we now have tar sands and fracking and even worldwide clearcutting of the rainforests.

    I’m delighted to see that the insurgency is gathering steam.

    • says

      Thanks Bill. I agree with you about the film — excellent on both the water pollution and the political corruption. But would’ve been better if it had taken a more peak-oil perspective.

      I find that many very good films on environmental issues don’t deal with peak oil, maybe because they worry that the message about a lack of supply will contradict environmental activists’ main message that there’s basically too much supply — basically, still enough fossil fuels for massive pollution including climate change. I would like to see green activists take a more subtle approach to fossil fuel supply, but I’ve talked to enough of them about peak oil to know that the topic seems to make them uncomfortable.

  2. Lynda says

    We’ve inherited mineral rights and will be getting checks from the fracking in N.D. We want to donate the money to some organization that is working to end the fracking. Any suggestions?

    • says

      Wow, Lynda, good for you! The Gasland 2 website lists organizations in various states and also nationally. If you want to donate in North Dakota, you might try the Dakota Resource Council: “Currently, Dakota Resource Council is the only organization working on fracking in North Dakota. We work with farmers, ranchers, and frontline communities in the western half of the state to empower voices and inspire action.”

      Dakota Resource Council, 701.224.8587, 103 1/2 S 3rd Street, Bismarck, North Dakota 58503

      If you want to find a group working nationally, check out the listing at the Gasland 2 website: Best of luck!

  3. Guillermo says

    It’s an interesting article opinion piece that thee has written, Erik, knitted around an interesting movie. There are two things here, though, that one should bear in mind: the movie and thy article. The movie, much like a Michael Moore fictional ‘documentary’, builds upon a few carefully selected incidents and extrapolates them to the industry (a well contaminated groundwater in Colorado –> all wells are bad –> the industry is evil. Thee takes the extrapolation to another level of conspiracy and doomsdayism (all wells are bad –> the industry is evil and active –> rural America is supine and ignorant and doomed). None of this is necessarily true, though it may be true in parts.

    One doubts the picture painted of the ‘other side’ as so distinctly one dimensional. What one must bear in mind is that there are folks equally thoughtful and careful and concerned and ethical on both sides of the issue. One’s goal, then, must be to seek to understand, be careful in listening, slow to form ‘opinions’ and always be ready to be proven wrong.

    In truth, the hydraulic fracturing industry does have some wildcat drillers that are failing to follow best practice; these drill sites have, from time to time, caused, or contributed to, ground water contamination. Most drillers — especially those ‘evil’ corporations — are much less likely to be involved with sloppy work for several very good and equally obvious reasons. But to paint the whole industry the deep crimson of sin is puerile and unfounded. It’s like referencing a drowning at the beach and concluding that all vacations should be outlawed because something went wrong. Erik, there was not intent by the family for the youth to drown, so even the premise is somewhat silly, no? In a like manner, there is no intent to poison wells in rural (or suburban) America — somewhat of a necessary characteristic for the corporations slandered in thy article to be evil; there is (statistically speaking) very little probability of any such outcome — and zero probability in most cases where petrology and hydrology are favorable to drilling. Given this, there is likely more chance of our glorious Lord’s return than there is of rural America collapsing into heap of smoldering corn stalks in the next 100 years.

    Thus, let’s each of us be a bit more generous and less prone to histrionics in this debate. There is room for understanding and a dire need for prayerful reflection. Some drill sites are not appropriate; some are questionable; most are perfectly fine. Could an approach based upon this structure be more productive? One in constrained to say that it would so be.


    • says

      Guillermo, I appreciate your reasonable tone. I do think you’re far too easy on the industry, especially the big drillers. In oil drilling in general, it’s not just wildcats that get into trouble but BP and ExxonMobil too. Likewise, in fracking, Exxon and Chesapeake have had plenty of problems. For example, here’s a federal lawsuit against Exxon for polluting drinking water in Pennsylvania: And here’s a fracking spill in Penn. involving Chesapeake:

      Likewise, as the number of problems in Pennsylvania shows, it’s obviously not just Colorado. Fox alone documented problems in other states including Texas as have many others. Finally, with all due respect, you lose credibility when you say that there’s zero probability of poisoning wells if conditions are favorable to fracking. Even the industry’s own numbers say that there’s 100% chance that 5% of all new well casings fail immediately and a whopping 50% will fail within 15 years (see report here:

      So the bottom line is Fox had his facts straight. Meanwhile, claims by the industry, the same companies who gave us the Exxon Valdez and the BP Gulf spill along with dozens of poisoned wells from fracking in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and other states, should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Too many questions about fracking’s safety remain. The practice should be immediately halted pending proof that it can be done safely. Until then, there should be a nationwide moratorium on all fracking.

  4. Jim Albert says

    One thing to keep in mind is that well water is not the only source of water and grey water can be cleaned and re-used or used for watering as well.

    In those states that allow for rain water collection, those in the rural areas could adapt to this by storing rainwater in tanks both above and below ground.

    Also, using permaculture as a design science and keyline design for runoff capture of rainwater much of what is on ones property can be stored in tanks, ponds, swales-on-countour, or in tree systems downslope of the swales-on-contour. All this to say that there are adaptions to well water use.

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