Fracking bans have begun to sweep across the world, with Ireland, France, Germany and Bulgaria declaring a moratorium on the deadly fossil fuel process. While the U.S. is lagging behind in the effort to stop the ill effects of global climate crisis, states like Vermont, Washington, Maryland and New York have passed bans. Both Georgia and Florida have attempted these bans as well.
Banning fracking isn’t enough, though. Fracking infrastructure is being built in states with bans and is continuing the fossil fuel industry’s race to drain the remaining dirty energy sources from the Earth.
The Cornell Policy Review defines hydraulic fracturing as the “propagation of fractures in a layer of rock called shale, using pressurized fluid pumped thousands of feet below the surface through a drilled well.” There are three types of hydraulic fracturing: water; the use of water and a proprietary blend of chemicals, and frac sand or proponnant; and matrix acidizing. A mixture of water, proppants and chemicals is pumped into the shale, creating fractures by injecting gases, such as propane or nitrogen, and sometimes acidizing involves pumping acid (usually hydrochloric acid) into the formation to dissolve some of the rock material to enable gas and fluid to flow more readily into the well. No state has banned all three forms of fracking.
The fossil fuel industry claims that fracked gas is a cleaner energy source than coal, but in this assessment, it neglects to account for the emissions that come from transporting the gas. Noelle Picone, the Williams Pipeline campaign lead from the New York City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, told Truthout that from the beginning process through transport, fracked gas is “84 times more potent a climate actor than other fossil fuels.”
Methane emissions from fracking account for one-third of all U.S. methane emissions and more than 3 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse emissions. Community engagement coordinator for the Sane Energy Project Lee Ziesche told Truthout that from the fracking well head to the point of use, there is a 5 to 12 percent leakage of methane.
Fracking also poisons the water and wildlife, and contributes to climate change. Areas with high levels of fracking have also experienced earthquakes, flooding, cancer clusters, and fires and explosions at compressor stations and on the trains and ships transporting the fracked gas.
More than 90 percent of the water injected underground to frack gas wells never returns to the surface, removing it from the water cycle and contributing to water scarcity. Meanwhile, as fracking has expanded, so has the volume of waste generated. Between 2010 and 2011, fracking waste went up by 70 percent in Pennsylvania. Thanks to a regulatory gap often referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, fracking is exempt from several pieces of federal regulation that protect the environment: the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act, to name a few.
Maryland was the first state with known oil and gas reserves to pass a ban on fracking. The state passed a 1.5-year moratorium on fracking in 2015. A permanent ban was passed in 2017.
It wasn’t easy to pass a permanent ban, according to Rianna Eckel, senior organizer with Food and Water Watch Maryland. State Senate President Thomas Mike Miller and State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, both Democrats, held a bill in committee from being voted on in the Maryland Senate until Gov. Larry Hogan came out in favor of the ban. Incidentally, Conway is close friends with lobbyist Lisa Harris Jones, who lobbies for the American Petroleum Institute. The oil and gas industry spent over $1 million to stop the fracking ban.
Even after the ban’s passage, Maryland has continued to support fracking through the buildup of fracking infrastructure. Despite Hogan’s support of the ban, he still supports the industry. Hogan appointed Ben Grumbles secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. Previously, while serving in the George W. Bush administration, Grumbles wrote the Halliburton Loophole. Governor Hogan also approved the use of tax dollars for the Canadian corporation AltaGas to build fracked gas infrastructure and for TransCanada’s Potomac Pipeline.
Meanwhile, Maryland is home to Dominion Energy’s Cove Point. Cove Point is a liquified natural gas (LNG) import and export hub that moves fracked gas to India, China and other international markets. LNGs are highly explosive and unstable. The environment and the residents in the area are at risk of water contamination, air pollution, pipeline and well leaks, as well as explosions and fires. Communities are absorbing this risk while those in power can earn profits off fracked gas that doesn’t even stay in the U.S.
A similar situation is currently playing out in New York, which passed a fracking ban in 2014. As in Maryland, New York’s fracking ban hasn’t brought an end to fracking infrastructure in the state. The proposed projects of the Danskammer gas-powered plant, the enormous Cricket Valley gas power plant, and Williams’s Northeast Supply Enhancement project (NESE) are all a part of the fracking infrastructure boom that’s being built across New York. And it’s not difficult to see why the infrastructure is being built even in the wake of a fracking ban: In 2016, Joseph Percoco, a top aide for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, pled guilty to six counts of extortion and soliciting bribes from Competitive Power Ventures.
Kim Fraczek, director of Sane Energy, pointed to controversial fracking projects happening in New York, such as the Manheim compressed natural gas station and the Northern Access Pipeline expansion (NAPL) as evidence that fracking-related activity hasn’t ended, even though the actual process of fracking is no longer allowed to take place in the state. National Fuel’s NAPL would move gas from Pennsylvania to Canada, directly crossing the Seneca Nation’s land. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation originally denied necessary permits, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) overruled the decision. Construction is slated to begin in 2020.
“FERC doesn’t really listen to the public” said Ziesche. Indeed, many activists view FERC as a body that approves almost every pipeline application that comes its way. This rubber-stamping at the federal level makes bans not only on fracking, but also on related infrastructure, crucial at the state and local level.
The Cuomo administration’s embrace of fracking infrastructure is puzzling, given that New York has committed to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050. According to Ziesche, the Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement project will increase fugitive methane emissions, which are leaks and other releases of methane into the atmosphere due to production of natural gas, oil and coal. This also includes CO2 emissions associated with flaring of excess gas to the atmosphere.
“This is a huge problem we’re facing right now in New York City, that instead of investing in the future that we need … New York City is heading in the wrong direction,” Ziesche said.
The hypocrisy of banning fracking while moving fracked gas into New York isn’t lost on people. “It’s incredibly hypocritical and immoral to say that [fracking] is unsafe — that fracking is so unsafe that we’re not gonna do it in New York — but that it’s okay to frack people in Pennsylvania and then use the gas,” Ziesche told Truthout.
“We’re using Pennsylvania as a sacrifice zone,” said Alex Beauchamp, northeast region director with Food and Water Watch New York, in reference to NESE.
On July 18, Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act into law. According to Beauchamp, though, there isn’t anything in the law that prevents the construction of new fossil fuel projects.
“We are at a crucial moment where the state can go one way or another. It’s very clear that this administration understands the power of the climate movement and, in particular, the movement fighting fracked gas,” Beauchamp said. However, it remains an open question whether that power will be taken into consideration when it comes to future policy-making.
Meanwhile, some locations and states that have banned fracking have simply ended their bans. In 2014, North Carolina lifted its fracking ban and even went so far as to make it illegal for anyone to reveal the chemicals used. The fluids used in fracking are considered proprietary information and therefore companies don’t have to disclose what they pump into the Earth.
In Florida, a fracking ban appears to be on the horizon. During the 2018 gubernatorial race, every candidate, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, went on record supporting a fracking ban.
Florida’s topography is heavily comprised of karst (land made up of limestone, a soft rock that dissolves in water), which makes water permeable. Matrix acidizing is a more common form of fracking when dealing with karst. Acidizing dissolves portions of the shale through the injection of acid mixed with water and other chemicals, allowing oil to more easily flow. However, Florida’s proposed fracking ban didn’t include matrix acidizing.
Brooke Errett, an organizer with Food and Water Watch Florida, told Truthout that many in the Florida statehouse didn’t believe that a separate bill banning only matrix acidizing would pass and that they needed a bill that banned all three forms of fracking. As a result, the 2019 fracking ban bill didn’t pass, said Errett. Organizers and legislators are hoping to introduce and pass a complete ban on all three forms of fracking in the next legislative session.
Even as organizers continue to push for a fracking ban, there are currently numerous fracking infrastructure projects in Florida. These include fracked-gas-powered plants, petro hubs (large-scale infrastructure projects that are home to various aspects of the fracking process) and LNG “bomb trains.” These trains travel through heavily populated areas of Miami-Dade County. According to Errett, there are currently three proposed LNG export terminals in Florida, whereas in 2018, there were only seven in the entire U.S., three of which were new projects.
It’s worth noting that Florida is no stranger to fossil fuel-related ills; the state has had nine oil-related spills annually out of only 57 operational wells, according to Errett.
Florida is one of the most vulnerable states due to climate change. Utility companies in the state are building higher walls around fracked gas power plants to deter damage due to rising seas. By 2045, nearly 64,000 homes in Florida will experience chronic flooding due to rising seawater.
“We can’t think that we need to address this at some point in the future,” Errett said. “We need to start addressing this now and shutting down fossil fuel production and infrastructure, and looking to resiliency measures, energy efficiencies and sea level rise.”
Governors Hogan, Cuomo and DeSantis did not respond to Truthout’s requests for comment.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to note that Competitive Power Ventures is a different company than the one behind the Cricket Valley Plant.