Get Rich or Kill the Planet Trying


A version of this story ran in the January 2012 issue.

At least a few times a year I have reason to drive through the sleepy South Texas town where I spent my first 14 years. Yorktown is one of those places where a new post office building is the event of the decade, and people like it that way.

But that was before The Boom.

In the past year or so, Yorktown has undergone a transformation thanks to the “fracking” frenzy that’s swept the Eagle Ford Shale, a massive oil- and gas-bearing formation that stretches across South Texas. There’s long been a little oil and gas production in DeWitt County. My family had a producing well for a time in the ’80s.

This boom is different. Land-poor rednecks—and I mean that affectionately—I grew up with are now figuring what to do with monthly royalty checks in the five figures. Others, who lost the mineral-rights lottery, watch gloomily as their neighbors come back from the mailbox each month with a year’s earnings.

The countryside, gently rolling hills of mesquite- and oak-dotted rangeland, now glows at night with flares and the lights of processing facilities. It’s quite a sight— one replayed in towns across North Texas’ Barnett Shale and South Texas’ Eagle Ford.

To some it’s the sight and smell of money. I think we can all understand the allure of an oil boom to an economically depressed area. In the early ’90s, Yorktown boasted on official signs: “A Great Place to Live. Where Your Neighbors Still Care. The Heart of Future State Prison Expansion.” There are only so many small towns that can goose their economies with antiques, hunting leases, or—all the rage now—for-profit immigrant detention centers. How can you possibly say “ no” to winning the lottery?

But the long-term costs of fracking have yet to be tallied. There’s compelling anecdotal evidence that fracking pollutes water wells. You may have seen the startling images, like those in the documentary Gasland, of people lighting their faucets on fire.

The industry has bragged for years that there hasn’t been a single documented case of the fracking process contaminating groundwater. It may be harder to maintain that line now that the EPA has released the results of a three-year study of groundwater in Pavilion, Wyoming. In December, the EPA said it had determined that pollution in an aquifer, including the carcinogen benzene, had likely migrated from nearby hydraulic fracturing activity.

But opponents of fracking shouldn’t declare victory just yet. Gas producers are jumping on the fact that the study is only a draft, and attacking it on the merits. For example, Encana, the company implicated in the investigation, argues that the wells the EPA drilled tap into a reservoir bearing naturally occurring gas. “Natural gas developers didn’t put the natural gas at the bottom of the EPA’s deep monitoring wells, nature did,” Encana wrote.

There are plenty of reasons not to trust the frackers, but they are correct that it’s difficult to definitively link groundwater pollution to specific fracking activity. Wells employing hydraulic fracturing are typically drilled thousands of feet below the surface; it’s hard to assess exactly what’s going on that deep down.

And what if the EPA manages to prove conclusively that fracking polluted groundwater? The industry will attempt to shift the conversation to the thousands of fracks that haven’t. Yes, even a single polluted well is a tragedy, but there are more lasting, planetary consequences to fracking that don’t get talked about much.

It’s the old problem of a single death being a tragedy and a million deaths being a statistic.

Fracking commits the crime of all fossil fuels: adding greenhouse gasses to an atmosphere already infested with them. If you believe the industry’s propaganda, natural gas is the most realistic short- to mid-term panacea for climate change. Boone Pickens wants to convert the nation’s truck fleet to natural gas. But here’s the catch: gas produced from fracking may actually be dirtier than coal. In May, two Cornell University researchers published a bombshell study in Climatic Change that figured the carbon footprint of shale gas to be “at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice” that of coal. That’s because the fracking process releases up to twice as much methane gas—an extremely potent greenhouse gas—as conventional methods. More research is needed, but if true, the study could lead to a complete rethinking of fracking’s costs.

All the money in the world won’t save us from a hot planet.