Fracking Democracy

January 15th, 2011

A two-day spectacle carved into two-minute chunks

by Sandra Steingraber
Published in the January/February 2011 issue of Orion magazine


THE EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing Public Informational Meeting was probably the strangest exhibition of performance art ever to grace the stage of the Broome County Forum Theater in Binghamton, New York.

Over the course of two days, a panel of EPA officials heard four hundred two-minute presentations by members of the public who had come to advise the agency, at its own invitation, on how it should design a scientific study. As ordered by Congress, this study will investigate the risks to drinking water posed by the Johnny-come-lately technology known as high-volume slick water horizontal hydrofracturing, which does to shale bedrock what mountaintop removal does to an Appalachian mountaintop: blows it up to get at a carbon-rich fossil fuel trapped inside.

In the case of fracking, the quarry is methane bubbles trapped inside impermeable layers of shale thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. To liberate the gas, millions of gallons of fresh water (high-volume) are mixed with sand and chemicals — some of which are carcinogens — and this slippery mixture (slick water) is forced, under immense pressure, into mile-long tunnels drilled sideways (horizontal) through bedrock. With the assistance of explosives, this poisonous solution shatters the shale (hydrofracturing) and releases a vaporous froth of petroleum, euphemistically known as natural gas, which floats up the borehole — along with brine, radioactive materials, and heavy metals.

So, last September in Binghamton, some four hundred members of New York State’s citizenry signed up to express their particular views on the question of how one might go about studying the environmental impacts of this sort of energy extraction. The EPA panelists sat in chairs on the commodious stage of this tattered-but-grand former vaudeville house, while, one by one, each preregistered citizen advisor approached a podium in the orchestra pit and offered up opinions. After 120 seconds, the microphone turned off automatically, ending the presentation of a sometimes still-talking, still-gesticulating petitioner.

Then the next person on the roster was called to the mike. And then the next. And then the next. For four solid hours. And then the panelists took an intermission and came back for another four-hour round of two-minute testimonies. And then there was a second day of speeches.

For members of the audience, who could see only the back of the speaker as he or she addressed the onstage panel, the sole visual element was a giant digital timer projected onto a screen behind the panelists that ticked backwards, second by second, from two minutes to zero, making the parade of speeches a cross between speed dating and a NASA countdown.

After my own 120 seconds of counsel — during which time I (rapidly) advised the EPA to consider revisiting its own prior investigation of PCBs in the Hudson River, at least some molecules of which seeped into the water through naturally occurring fissures and hairline cracks (seventy-nine seconds; talk faster) in the shale bedrock beneath General Electric’s factory floor, migratory pathways not previously known or even thought possible — I had plenty of time to listen to the other presentations.

Because the EPA had signaled a possible willingness to expand the scope of its study to consider cumulative impacts, the pro-drilling contingent was on the defensive. One after the other, the self-identified “landowners” — which seemed to be code for “people who believe that the federal government should not get between a man and his gas lease” — urged the EPA to “restrict inquiry” and “resist the temptation” of more deliberation.

Back in the cheap seats, I practiced sympathy for this position. What would it be like, I asked myself, to view scientific inquiry as meddlesome dithering? As someone who, in other circumstances, has argued that the time for action had arrived, I could almost understand the impatience of those who viewed fracking as a bold enterprise rather than complete lunacy.

But, soon, the repeated calls for expediency were followed by dismissive comments about water, and whatever empathy I might have felt for the opposition vanished. One man intoned rhapsodically, “Energy is Life,” and then added with a smirk, “Water is a Resource.” I thought that maybe I had heard it backwards, but then he repeated his assertion again, with even more sanctimony: “Energy is Life; Water is a Resource.” It felt like a Monty Python Drop-the-Cow kind of moment, but, alas, no cows fell.

And then came the untruths. The millions of gallons of fresh water used by gas wells during fracking operations are exceeded, claimed one petitioner, by the leaks in the New York City water system. They are exceeded by the water used to irrigate golf courses claimed another. Huge amounts of water are wasted doing all kinds of things.

A geologist friend and I looked at each other in wonderment, and in my head, I began to imagine a 120-second rebuttal. It would go like this: Fracking constitutes consumptive water use, which is different from what happens to water when underground pipes leak and water re-enters the aquifer, or when irrigation leads to evaporation and cloud formation. When water is entombed in deep geological strata, a mile or more below the water table, it’s permanently removed from the water cycle. As in, forever. It will never again ascend into the clouds, freeze into snowflakes, melt into rivulets, cascade over rocks, turn with the tide, soak into soil, rise through roots, or pour from your tap. It will never again become blood, tears, sweat, urine, milk, sap, nectar, yolk, honey, or the juice of a fruit. It will never again float a leaf boat, swell a bud, quench a thirst, fill a swamp, spill over an edge, slosh, dribble, spray, trickle, splash, drip, or glisten. Never again fog, mist, frost, ice, dew, or rain. It’s gone. To conclude: fracking turns fresh water into poison and makes the water disappear. That’s something we’ve not done before on a large scale. And by the way, water is life. It’s energy that’s a resource.

An older man rose to speak. He announced he had a special presentation. And then he let ten seconds of silence fill the theater while, before him, the monumental numbers projected on the screen blinked away.

After hours of ceaseless, rapid-fire speech, the sudden hush flowed through the overheated room like cool water. Someone giggled nervously. And then, finally, he spoke. That silence, he announced, represented the sounds of migratory birds. And tourists. And professors. And organic farmers. And thus with no words at all he reminded the audience of all the good members of our beloved community who would — if our land filled up with drill rigs, waste ponds, compressor stations, and diesel trucks — disappear, exit the cycle. As in, forever.

04. 03. 02. 01. Mute. And then he sat down.