Rhode Island’s financial woes are over. The state is sitting on a mother lode of natural gas.
That, at least, could be one conclusion from a petition being sent to Rhode Islanders. Another is that efforts to extract the gas could seriously compromise the state’s water resources. The second conclusion is what the Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch (FWW) organization fears. Both petitions call on Governor Lincoln Chafee and President Obama to ban “fracking” in Rhode Island.
Fracking for natural gas and oil [hydraulic fracturing] consists of drilling a well into shale bearing natural gas. As the well reaches the shale, its direction turns horizontal. Then it is injected with more than a million gallons of water under high pressure that is laced with chemicals and filled with sand. The cocktail is forced into the fissures of the shale. The sand acts to hold those cracks open, allowing the natural gas trapped in the shale to escape up the well to be stored in tanks and then piped to market.
However, the chairman of the Department of Geo-Sciences at the University of Rhode Island knows of no sources of hydrocarbons in Rhode Island other than a coal seam at Garden City in Cranston and some graphite and methane from the state landfill.
“There would be no reason to frack here,” said Professor David Fastovsky on Monday.
He said he knows of no natural gas reserves in the state other than the landfill that in the not too distant past was the source of noxious odors – that’s gas – that permeated Johnston and nearby Cranston neighborhoods. But the petitions are being circulated anyway.
“The toxic results of using hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas have led to the contamination of drinking water, cattle being quarantined, and dangerous explosions in states across the country, among other issues,” reads the petition. “In order to protect Rhode Island’s essential water resources, we need a statewide ban on fracking.”
The petitions are to be signed and returned in an envelope addressed to Food and Water Watch. A four-page letter accompanies them from the organization’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, along with “five frightening facts about fracking.” It also offers “an environmentally friendly stainless steel water bottle” for a contribution of $35 or more.
While fracking is an incendiary issue in Pennsylvania, where it is being done, and in New York – where the practice is being contested and a moratorium is in place – the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is not aware of any plans to drill for natural gas. In fact, a spokesperson for the department had never heard of the term when reached Friday. The governor’s office knew nothing of a petition and, until mentioned by a reporter on Monday, Gov. Chafee was not aware of any effort to ban fracking in the state.
That could be because the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale, that is 6,000 to 7,000 feet below the rolling hills of portions of Pennsylvania and New York, doesn’t extend into Rhode Island.
Seth Gladstone, New England regional communications manager for FWW, is not troubled by what would appear to be a non-issue for Rhode Islanders. He said, with the development of technology by the oil and gas industry, “pockets” of natural gas might be found in the state. He said the potential of discovery always exists, but that “this practice of drilling can’t be done safely … we don’t want it done anywhere.”
He said, in those areas where fracking is being done, there are “high rates of spills and contamination. The evidence is overwhelming.”
Gladstone could not say how many petitions were mailed to Rhode Islanders or how many have been returned. He said, until he had the opportunity to review the petition – implying that there are different petitions targeting different states – he would not be able to comment on the Rhode Island version.
Gladstone called the FWW a “relatively new organization” that was founded in the fall of 2005 and now boasts a registered membership of more than 100,000. He described the focus of the organization as the health and safety of water and food supplies.
In the letter, Hauter said fracking is being done in 28 states and the “oil and natural gas industry is expanding fracking rapidly nationwide in a Manifest Destiny-style fervor with their eye on mega-billions in profits.”
The letter also claims that a Texas hospital serving six counties near drilling sites reported asthma rates three times higher than the state average and that, Wyoming, with a high concentration of wells, is seeing record high levels of ozone. Further, the wastewater produced by fracking contains high levels of radioactivity but “the more immediate threat to your family, should drillers start fracking near your home, is that it can kill you.” Hauter explains that the process can cause natural gas to migrate into household wells and drinking water; that it is explosive; and can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness and suffocation.
Fastovsky said fracking is destructive, but he didn’t see it of concern if it’s done at depths well beyond the water table where it’s “not so clear that it’s such a bad thing to do. To say that all fracking is bad is not accurate.”
He said that fracking has also been used to free underground water. He said this was attempted within the last three years along a section of the Rhode Island coast but that those using it had not taken into consideration the proximity of the ocean. The result was, the well produced water but it was salt water, which is not in such short supply around here.
However, Fastovsky said, “Our hydrocarbon-based economy is a problem.”