The Lawless Place = Frac’ing. The Moral Urgency of Stopping this Intergenerational Theft

April 2023 Networker: A Fracked Nation by Science and Environmental Health Network Volume 28 (4), April 2023
Table of Contents
1. Editor’s Note
2. Celebrating Our Colleagues: Martha Dina Argüello
3. The Moral Urgency of Stopping this Intergenerational Theft
4. The RePercussion Section: A Short History of Fracking
5. SEHN in the News

In the meantime, we now have no shortage of stomach-churning data on the public health, ecological, air, water, soil, and climate impacts of this frenzy that was allowed to unfold basically unregulated. In her column this month, Sandra traces how we ended up in the “lawless place” that this now-typical method of fossil gas extraction occupies.

The rePercussion Section: A Short History of Fracking by Sandra Steingraber, SEHN senior scientis
The signature work of Concerned Health Professionals of New York—now a program of the Science and Environmental Health Network—is the fracking science compendium. This compilation reviews the dangers posed by a now-ubiquitous set of techniques for extracting oil or natural gas that is collectively called hydraulic fracturing. To free the oil or natural gas trapped inside rocks, these methods use water, chemicals, sand, and high pressure to shatter deep shale formations. With more than 2,500 studies now published in the peer-reviewed literature, the climate and public health case against fracking is damning. From methane plumes to radioactive wastewater and from earthquakes to toxic air pollution, fracking wreaks havoc wherever it goes. The current eighth edition of the compendium, officially known as Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating the Risks and Harms of Fracking, is 577 pages long. The ninth edition is underway. Recently, while organizing our files, I unearthed a paper copy of our first edition, which we sent to New York’s then-Governor Andrew Cuomo more than a decade ago. It reviews the evidence from just 65 published studies—all that were available at the time—and it is held together at the top left margin by a single staple. Admittedly, our decision to title this document a “compendium” was aspirational.

Reading through our first effort to summarize its perils made clear to me that some aspects of fracking have changed dramatically over the years while other things have not changed at all. One important difference between then and now is the outsized role that fracking currently plays in the operations of the fossil fuel industry.

Way back in 2012, we referred to fracking as an “unconventional” form of extraction because the conventional way of bringing oil and gas to the surface still involved locating underground lagoons of oil and gas that had already escaped from inside deep rocks through naturally occurring faults and fractures and had pooled in the spaces in between rock layers. Pumping those so-called reservoirs to the surface was, at the time, the usual way to get liquid and vaporous fossil fuels out of the ground. 

But hydraulically fractured shale wells now produce more than 79 percent of U.S. natural gas and 65 percent of U.S. crude oil. In other words, fracking is no longer a niche technique. Indeed, it’s become the standard method of extraction. 

The fossil fuel industry has largely pumped out the flowable reservoirs I cringe every time I think of the massive volume of easy to get energy humans wasted via arrogance, selfishness, greed, laziness, …of oil and gas trapped in between rock layers. Now it’s going after the bubbles of oil and gas trapped inside the rocks that wouldn’t otherwise rise to the surface unless the rock layers that hold them are blown apart. 

Drilling sideways through these rock layers, setting off underground explosives to fracture them, and then pulverizing them using a firehose of water, chemicals, and sand is what the oil and gas industry is busy doing down there. In other words, the case against fracking has become the case against oil and gas drilling.


One hallmark of fracking that has not changed over the past decade is its lawlessness. A decade ago, we at Concerned Health Professionals of New York were shocked when we first learned about fracking’s many regulatory exemptions from our federal environmental statues that govern all other industries. Today, fracking is still surrounded by these exemptions, which allow it to remain a highly secretive practice.Frac’ing is impossible to do safely, thus the massive deregulation and secrecy. Insanity of humanity summed up in one industrial practice.

Most notably, under the so-called Halliburton Loophole, fracking remains exempt from key provisions of the Clean Water Act (CWA) along with the Underground Injection Control section of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). 

These dispensations mean, among other things, that fracking need not participate in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program, which bans the release of any pollutant into a body of water without a permit. Hence, even though nine billion pounds of 85 different chemicals regulated under the CWA are known to be used in fracking operations and even though fracking operations generate prodigious amounts of toxic wastewater containing these same chemicals, the gas and oil sector does not need to seek permits for these chemicals. 

As a peer-reviewed study noted in 2012, “There is no federal oversight of fracturing activities until there is proof of fracturing contaminants in surface water.” 

One decade later, as a 2022 investigation by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative revealed, federal oversight of fracking is still absent even as documented water contamination incidents continue to spike. The toxic chemicals regulated by the CWA are still used in fracking operations in unmonitored and unregulated ways, and “the rate of effluent violations has increased since 2015, reaching as high as 80% in 2019. Meanwhile, the rate of facility inspections has shown a marked decrease, from 50-60% in 2001 and 2002 to about 12% in 2022.”

* * *

To understand how we ended up in this lawless place requires a look back to the 20th century when fracking was first used to blast methane not out of shale but out of coal.

Coal seams represent places in the Earth’s crust where 200-million-year-old plants have been crushed, pressed, and cooked into brittle, fragmented, rocky material. Past and current microbial action makes coal a reservoir for methane gas. This gas not only resides inside the coal seam itself but also migrates into the rocky formations all around it. 

Traditional coal mining—sinking a vertical shaft into a coal seam and then sending miners out to claw the coal from long horizontal tunnels—releases this invisible, explosive, oxygen-displacing, asphyxiating gas, which was, and still is, the fear and bane of coal miners everywhere. 

In his brilliant 2015 book Slick Water, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk describes it this way:

The gas not only hovers around the coal but sticks to it, like sweat to skin pores. Coal’s unique properties make it a “gas generating machine” and a sponge. By shattering the wall of a coal seam, miners break the molecular chain and free the adsorbed methane. They also liberate the explosive gas in another way. Coal seams routinely act as pipelines for the movement of groundwater. In fact, much drinkable water travels through coal and saturates its seams. The water pressure, however, keeps the methane locked in. 

Removing the water from coal seams to allow for mining liberates even more methane gas. 

Furthermore, as automated coal-gouging machines replaced miners with pickaxes and the pace of coal extraction accelerated throughout the 20th century, methane began seeping from the fractured coal seams at ever-increasing rates. The result was catastrophic explosions and mass deaths of workers. 

I grew up in Illinois coal country where the names of these calamities are part of our cultural and political heritage. The West Frankfort Coal Mine Disaster of 1951, for example, killed 119 Illinois miners just before Christmas. The cause: methane gas explosion. All this carnage helped usher in the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952, which, among other things, forced better ventilation to control the invasion of methane gas into mine shafts.

And this is where the idea to frack coal beds began. 

As documented by Nikiforuk, the Bureau of Mines first began drilling wells to vent methane into the atmosphere in front of advancing mines. In the 1970s, researchers began fracking these wells to increase the amount of gas they released. But, by 1979—

researchers admitted they couldn’t always predict where the fracks would go… and were at a loss to explain why some treatments created fractures more than ten times wider and shorter than predicted…[or why] the quantity of methane released after fracking often exceeded calculations about what the coal contained. That meant that some of the methane was traveling from neighboring formations through natural fractures in ways that no geologists comprehended or could predict. 

If the chaotic and capricious outcomes of these early coalbed fracking experiments should have given pause to the whole approach, that’s not what happened. Instead, notes Nikiforuk, “in the late 1970s, U.S. research abruptly changed its focus from mine safety to methane mining… and spawned an unlikely courtship between coal geologists and natural gas drillers. Their diffident marriage eventually produced the experimental and highly complex coalbed methane industry.”


The proving ground for fracking coalbeds on a large scale—and capturing and selling the methane they contain—was the San Juan Basin in southwestern Colorado, now one of the most intensely fracked landscapes in North America. 

From there, beginning in the 1980s, the technique spread to coalbeds in Wyoming and Alabama, where, in 1989, the Alabama Oil and Gas Board argued that hydraulic fracturing did not constitute an underground injection well—which would require federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act—even though fracking did inject thousands of gallons of toxic fluids into formations known to contain drinking water sources.  

With public complaints of earthquakes and contaminated drinking water mounting, various legal challenges and petitions to the EPA began questioning this logic and demanding that fracking be regulated as a new form of well injection. 

In 1997, one such case ended up in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling came down on the side of regulation, with the court concluding that fracking was, yes, indeed, a form of underground injection. 

Then, Empire Strikes Back. Lobbyists from the oilfield service company Halliburton were soon flying to Washington D.C. with the aim of exempting fracking from federal laws. The American Exploration & Production Council joined in, arguing that states, not the federal government, should oversee fracking operations. The Independent Petroleum Association of America contended that the decades-long history of coalbed fracking showed that no major environmental problems exist. 

By 2002, EPA had released a draft of its first study on the threat to drinking water from the injection of fracking fluids into coalbed methane wells. It concluded, “further study is not warranted at this time… the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coalbed methane wells poses minimal threat to U.S. drinking water supplies.” 

Whistleblowers and members of Congress cried foul. But, in that same year, 2002, Devon Energy bought out George Mitchell, the CEO of Mitchell Energy, who had successfully applied the techniques of coalbed fracking to the impermeable shale that underlies Forth Worth, Texas. Again, here is the reporting by Andrew Nikiforuk:

“Devon Energy… added horizontal fracking to the equation… a horizontal well was the equivalent of a bottom trawler with a net scraping everything off the ocean floor. Devon’s deviated wells extracted seven times more gas than a fracked vertical well.” 

And thus, three years later, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, championed by Vice President and former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, ensured that coming fracking shale gas boom, like the coalbed methane boom before it, would be unencumbered by federal regulations. 

And then the unconventional practice of fracking became the conventional way that the United States forces fossil fuels from the rock layers below our feet. Fracking is drilling. And now here we are. A fracked nation.

Refer also to:

Andrew Nikiforuk honoured with USA National Science in Society Award for Slick Water. “NASW’s Science in Society Journalism Awards honor and encourage outstanding investigative and interpretive reporting about the sciences and their impact for good and ill.”

Andrew Nikiforuk’s acceptance speech:

To San Antonio/National Association of Science Writers

Thank you for this great honor and for inviting me to San Antonio.

In Canada it would be difficult to fill a bus full of science writers—it is reassuring that you can still fill a entire ballroom here in the United States.

The founder of Pakistan once said that there are two powers in the world; one is the sword and other is the pen. But that there is a third power stronger than both, that of women.

So I would like to thank first my Hebredian wife, Doreen Docherty for her continued support and in making my writing possible.

Second, I’d to thank the other woman in my life: Jessica Ernst. She is a scientist and she has worked in Alberta’s oil patch for 20 years. It took her nearly a decade to trust me with her story. Prickly. Fiercely brilliant. Combative. Wedded to evidence. Uncompromising. Meticulous. Pain in the ass. That’s Ernst.

As such Slick Water is really a story about the courage of women—and that courage differs from that of men: it is civil, persistent, strategic and selfless.

Ernst’s story is dramatic. During a messy resource boom Encana, then one of her clients, fracked into a shallow aquifer in her community near Calgary, Alberta and clearly broke the law. Ernst then caught regulators behaving badly and covering up the deed. She has now spent 9 years pursuing justice and accountability in Canada’s byzantine court system.

So I want to thank the Science In Society judges in particular for recognizing her courage and strength of character. Such people can and do change the world.

Let me add a word on the dysfunctional technology of hydraulic fracturing. Politicians and the media often portray more technology as solutions to our problems. But as many science writers know, the thoughtless deployment of previous technologies has multiplied our problems. We have a word for this predicament: complexity.

Industry swore that its cracking rock technology was safe and proven, but science now tells a different story. Brute force combined with ignorance (and that’s how one executive described the technology) has authored thousands of earthquakes from British Columbia to Texas. It has called forth clouds of migrating methane in the Four Corner states. The science is complicated but clear: cracking rock with fluids is a chaotic activity and no computer model can predict where those fractures will go. The regulatory record shows that they often go out of zone; extend into water; and rattle existing oil and gas wells, and these rattled wells are leaking more methane.

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul spoke eloquently about technology and its increasingly dominant role in our lives decades ago. He thought that whenever we abdicate our responsibilities to uphold truly human values and whenever we limit ourselves to leading a trivial existence in a technological society with the sole objective of adapting to more technologies and material comforts, we turn out backs on justice and the human spirit.

My deep thanks to the National Association of Science Writers for shining a light on that spirit tonight.

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