This column concerns hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Alaska. Fracking is the process during which a mixture of water, chemicals and sand are pumped into a well at extremely high pressures to fracture rock and allow natural gas to escape. The purpose of this column is to inform you about the harmful environmental impacts of fracking and about the need for a state bill, statutes and regulations to address these impacts.
The chemicals contained in the hydraulic fracking fluids are proprietary and industry will not divulge the exact chemical composition, although diesel fuel seems to be a known ingredient. Federal legislators found that 14 fracking companies injected more than 32 million gallons of diesel fuel into the ground in 19 states between 2005 and 2009. The hydraulic fracking fluids contain many semi-volatile and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including phthalate esters and benzene (carcinogens), which have now contaminated drinking water wells throughout the lower 48 states. Earthquakes are not uncommon after fracking occurs and this has the potential to impact Alaska’s oil pipeline. Fish and wildlife kills have also been documented and are suspected to be due to large volumes of fracking fluids (wastewater) being discharged into streams and rivers. Fracking is also responsible for localized air pollution caused by the uncontrolled discharge of VOCs from the gas well condensation tanks. People are resorting to wearing full-face respirators in their backyards in order to breathe the contaminated air. For a more in-depth analysis of the effects of fracking on human health and the environment please read a series of articles published on-line by ProPublica (website: www.propublica.org/series/fracking). There is also an informative HBO documentary called “Gasland”, by Josh Fox, which I urge you to see.
In 2011, the Governor’s Office formed a shale resource task force comprised of representatives from the State of Alaska whose purpose is to identify the resources (staff time and money) necessary to facilitate the extraction of North Slope shale resources on State lands. The task force is currently reviewing the permitting requirements for hydraulic fracturing along the Dalton Highway on the North Slope which is scheduled to commence in 2012. The task force is not charged with examining what environmental impacts fracking would have on the North Slope. I encourage Alaska’s legislators to form a parallel task force that examines the potential environmental impacts due to fracking prior to the start of any permitted drilling.
Hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act under Section 322 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The intent of the Energy Policy Act was clearly to circumvent the Safe Drinking Water Act in order to expedite the permitting of fracking throughout the country. The purposely negligent intent of the federal legislators who drafted this act has now resulted in the poisoning of people, animals and their drinking water throughout the country. We here in Alaska now need new laws to protect us from this negligent and harmful intent. Alaska’s legislators could vote to uphold and enforce the intent of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Alaska’s legislators could also require energy companies to provide full disclosure of the chemical composition of the hydraulic fracturing fluids. Some people would argue that we don’t drink the groundwater on the North Slope so let them pollute it. The Clean Water Act requires that states develop and adopt into regulation an anti-degradation policy to prevent the unnecessary lowering of water quality. Alaska’s anti-degradation policy requires that the State protect the highest beneficial use of a water body. The state policy of turning a blind eye towards the unmitigated pollution of North Slope aquifers goes against the anti-degradation policy. Fracking in Alaska will cause irreversible, long-term contamination of Alaska’s aquifers whether it occurs on state, federal or private lands; not to mention the detrimental impacts on surface water quality, air quality, human and wildlife health.
Without any state legislation, Alaska’s citizens and wildlife will remain vulnerable to the lack of law surrounding this industry. Some states have put a moratorium on fracking while developing regulations. Alaska’s legislators could put a moratorium on fracking until federal and state legislators have time to address, through new regulation, the potential for harm due to fracking. I encourage Alaska’s legislators to develop the necessary legislation for protecting Alaska’s groundwater, surface water and air quality, and thus protect Alaska’s citizens and its wildlife, from the harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing before any drilling is permitted to start. Please let your legislators know what you think about hydraulic fracturing.
• Sloane is a Juneau resident.