Alan Boraas: Put the brakes on Cook Inlet fracking

commentBy ALAN BORAASJune 21, 2013 

Two of my neighbors in Kasilof have put their house up for sale. It's a beautiful house overlooking the mouth of the Kasilof River and was to be their dream retirement home. They like the house they designed, and they have a long-time love of Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. So why are they leaving? Fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracking or simply fracking is the controversial technique of pumping fluids under high pressure into fractures in oil shale to break it apart, forcing small pockets of trapped hydrocarbons to migrate to larger pockets that can then be extracted. Apparently it's coming to the Kenai Peninsula soon.

Fracking is not a new technology but the extent of its use has grown significantly as old fields in Pennsylvania, Texas and other places have played out. It's the primary technique in the bonanza Bakken Field in North Dakota and is being used in Asia and Australia. In the U.S. fracking is one of the primary reasons we are again exporting petroleum.

But fracking is not embraced everywhere. Ten European countries have either banned fracking or placed a moratorium on it because of health and environmental risks. Norway and Sweden have declared fracking economically unviable. They calculate health risks in economic viability.

In Pennsylvania residents have complained that their water wells have been contaminated, resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, throat irritation and skin rashes. There are reports of air quality problems from escaping gases, including sinus and respiratory issues. Pets have suffered as well, with reports of dogs dying from drinking contaminated water after fracking activities began, likely drinking ethylene glycol (see below). Some families now only use their well water to flush the toilet.

The chief problem is the chemical cocktail used in the injection process. The three to 12 additives in the fracking fluid prevent well casing corrosion and bacteria growth, and enhance gas movement. The fracking chemicals include compounds like ethylene glycol (used in antifreeze, causing death when consumed), potassium carbonate (used in welding flux and to tenderize tripe), and isopropanol (used in cleaning fluids, bad to drink). Other chemicals can include hydrochloric acid (irreversibly toxic to lungs, eyes, skin and intestines) and polyacrylamide (an early Monsanto soil conditioner that proved toxic to plants). For the list of 62 chemicals commonly used in fracking, see http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Commission is in the process of deciding upon new regulations, if any, to apply to fracking. Fracking has been used extensively in the Prudhoe Bay fields for years. On the North Slope health problems are minimized due to the unpopulated area and permafrost. The regulations seem to be primarily aimed at Cook Inlet oil and gas fields. Here loosely consolidated Tertiary deposits have been known to hold small pockets of gas near the surface but so far it has not been economical to drill for them. Extensive seismic testing is being done and fracking will follow.

The regulations include notifying an owner when drilling will take place a quarter mile from their water well and require oil companies to test wells closer than that. It also proposes that the chemical composition of the fracking fluids be made public. There is nothing about culpability should fracking fluids escape into groundwater and then into city water, a private well or a salmon stream creating health problems, declining property values or environmental degradation.

Naturally there is push back from the oil industry. A ConocoPhillips representative testified at hearings that oil companies should not have to test private wells less than a quarter mile from their drilling operations, stating that it "does not appear to be justified by any potential public or private benefit."

A Halliburton executive argued that the compositions of hydraulic fracturing fluids are trade secrets and corporations should not have to disclose their make-up. He said it was like Coca-Cola being required to disclose their soft drink recipe. Bad analogy. Drinking a glass of Coke won't kill you. Drink a glass of ethylene glycol, or most of the other ingredients in fracking fluids, and you're dead. The public has a right to know: It's our groundwater, it's our health, it's our environment.

Following the lead of European nations, the state of Alaska should put a moratorium on fracking in Cook Inlet until the human health and environmental issues can be assessed and resolved. If not, my wife and I will be joining our neighbors and looking for a new place to live.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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