Sunday, June 12, 2011

Eagle Ford Shale... The Perfect Storm

I was part of a "town hall" type meeting yesterday with residents of DeWitt County (Cuero, TX).  The effects of the Eagle Ford Shale gas boom have been surfacing in the area.  I was not surprised by all the fracking truck traffic I encountered on my drive from San Antonio, out highway 87 south, to the little town.  I was glad to see a great showing of residents, many of whom were older folks (landowners and ranch owners).  At their core, they are just like most Americans: trying to survive in a difficult economy.  But they are also trying to survive other things.  There is a severe drought occurring in Texas right now which may eventually be referred to as "the worst on record."  There is also a natural gas boom happening at their back door.   I think the residents in Eagle Ford Shale are in the "perfect storm." Few at the meeting, if any, had heard about the dangers associated with natural gas fracking.  None had seen "Gasland." And all truly believed that the Texas Railroad Commission, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the EPA were agencies whose sole purpose was to protect them.  They also mistakenly believed there were laws and legislation in place to protect them from drilling companies' greed and subsequent water contamination.

Dead corn in south Texas-- mile after mile after mile

At first they seemed "out of touch."  But then I realized, these people are living lives close to the land-- they are not tied every minute to Facebook or the internet.  They probably watch little to no TV.  They are not aware of which new documentaries have just been released on fracking.  They are a different generation of people who don't have time to sit back and ponder the meaning of life or draw conclusions about environmental degradation.  They are busy living and working.  Hopefully after our meeting yesterday, they have been awakened to the reality of what is happening around them.  This reality is not the stuff of dreams-- neither their own dreams or the dreams of their children.

Condensate tank farm in Cuero, TX

Cuero seems to be an emerging hot bed of fracking activity.  There is sand for sale on the roadside, newly sprung RV parks, new convenience stores, and signs screaming for "commercial truck drivers needed" at every corner.  From a distance, it looks like a town being revived from the dead... a town being pulled from the clutches of economic death.  But we have to ask, "Why pull it from death only to kill it slowly and even more destructively once again?"  There is a boomtown here, but the boom will finally snuff out the area for good after all the money leaves.  All that will be left will be the toxic chemical stews festering underground and bubbling up through stock ponds (if there is any water left).  You see, natural gas fracking takes no live prisoners because dead men can tell no tales.  Even their ghosts will be silenced.

Fracking wastewater pond just beyond the trees

One resident has complained to TRC and TCEQ about his well water.  One sniff of it will tell you all you need to know about the dangers of injecting chemicals and diesel fluid underground.  His well was contaminated nearly a year ago with benzene (a known carcinogen used in the fracking process).  The diesel is used as a lubricant during the drilling process, similar to the way we use WD-40 to "loosen sticky mechanisms."  Time after time, the TRC, TCEQ, and the EPA have guaranteed that there is NO WAY these chemicals can get into someone's well water.  But they can't explain how after decades of perfectly clean water, a relatively shallow water well suddenly has benzene and diesel in it and that this problem emerged in direct correlation to the drilling going on in the area.  All they know is that it's not from the drilling.  No way, they say.  They have told the resident repeatedly that there is nothing wrong with his water.  I smelled the water sample and I can tell you unequivocally THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE WATER! The jug of water in the picture below is brownish, gritty and smells heavily of diesel fuel.

Contaminated water from a well in DeWitt County, TX
The problem with all of this is that it will get worse.  Lax regulation combined with pro-industry people making all the rules, and financially depressed voiceless people being impacted, makes for a boomtown all right. The boom is not happening around you, south Texas.  It is being dropped ON you. Wake up and look up, before it's too late.

Gas flaring near Yorktown, TX

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seeing the BIG Picture

The other night I was on Facebook and one of my distant friends in Hawaii posted a link to a story about climate change. Viewing posts like his on a daily basis is not an uncommon occurrence for me. Most of my on-line friends are pro-environment and fully understand the implications of the climate issues we are facing.  However, one of my friend's "friends" made a few comments on the posting with the usual counterpoints:  "Climate change is not happening, but if it was, man can't control it."  He also wrote, "The earth is actually in a cooling phase." Each time he posted these types of comments, I came back with scientific facts to disprove him.  Then he made a comment that dumbfounded me: "The same people [environmentalists] banned DDT with insufficient science and ended up killing uncountable Africans as a result. Let's use caution this time. I don't want to save a crayfish and kill a human."  Okay, whoa!  My eyes bugged out of my head. Really?  We should not have banned DDT? I literally could not wrap my head around this. After a few "back and forths" with him, he sent me a link to a blog entry by some guy named Mark Levin.  Turns out, this "Mark Levin" is a good friend of Rush Limbaugh's and has been a "counterpoint" guy on climate change and environmentalism for some time now.  I should have known better.

Now I am not a scientist nor do I claim to be one, but I read.  I read a lot and I observe a lot.  I am technically inclined. I like to understand how things work.  One thing I learned from high school and college physics courses:  For every action, there is an opposite and equal REACTION.  I know this theorem usually relates to physical movement, but does it not also apply to the natural world?  Does it not apply to all the animals, insects, plants, trees, germs, etc?  Doesn't it essentially mean that when you mess one thing up or try to take it out of the natural equation that we call "life on earth," a chain reaction begins that may have uncertain ends?

So this takes me back to the title of this entry:  "Seeing the BIG Picture."  I remember when I was a child, I loved puzzles.  I loved all kinds of puzzles... simple ones, large difficult ones, brain teasers and number games.  My favorite was a puzzle I received when I was about 8 years old.  It was called "Pythagoras."

Vintage Pythagoras Puzzle, circa 1973

I loved this puzzle for many reasons but it wasn't until recently that I figured out why.  I loved it because I am a "big picture" person.  I loved that all the colored pieces fit together to form different shapes and that each time I played with it, I could arrange them differently to form spectacular designs.  When I played, I always wanted all the pieces to fit.  I knew they all belonged together -- sometimes in unconventional ways.  And that was the goal of the puzzle:  To get all the pieces to fit.  Such is life. It is a puzzle that does not work and is not complete without all the pieces fitting together.
Back to the banning of DDT.  DDT was used with great success in the second half of WWII to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troopsFrom 1950 to 1980, DDT was extensively used in agriculture (more than 40,000 tons were used each year worldwide) and it has been estimated that a total of 1.8 million tons have been produced globally since the 1940s. DDT is a persistent organic pollutant with a half life from 22 days to 30 years. In aquatic ecosystems it is quickly absorbed by organisms or it evaporates. It breaks down into DDE and DDD which have similar chemical and physical properties.  DDT and its breakdown products are transported throughout the world by the phenomenon of global distillation, where they then accumulate in the region's food web. DDT has a high potential to build up in the body, especially in predatory birds like eagles.  It works its way up the food chain through agriculture. In humans, it can remain in the body between 6 and 10 years. In the United States, these chemicals were detected in almost all human blood samples tested by the CDC in 2005, though their levels have sharply declined since most uses have been banned in the U.S. Estimated dietary intake has also declined, although FDA food tests still commonly detect it. DDT has been linked to birth defects, neurological problems and even cancer. So my rebuttal to my friend's "friend" about his statement that it was "a mistake to ban DDT" went something like this: Initially, everyone thought DDT was a great thing because no one knew any better.  Desperate times called for desperate measures. But as progress was made and with the publication of Rachel Carson's definitive work on the subject, Silent Spring, some people began to see the big picture. We began to see how all things were connected ... that we are all in one big web of interactivity and interconnectedness.  Since DDT was causing the rapid thinning of birds' egg shells that resulted in massive egg losses, Carson predicted that someday we would have a spring without birds and without bird songs -- a so-called "silent" spring.

Man seems hell bent on altering the natural world.  He thinks he can make it better.  He thinks he can improve upon what is already perfectly imperfect. We want to speed things up, change things around and alter the natural course. Dams, irrigation canals, genetically modified food, hair coloring, anti-bacterial soap, pesticides ... we want it our way -- the way we think is "best."  But is it really best?  Dams cause irreparable damage to fragile ecosystems.  Irrigation canals starve some areas of water in order to grow non-native crops in areas where the original system did not support it.  Genetically modified food is chemically altered to improve yields (even though it has been proven to reduce yields) and those chemical alterations can be found today in human fetal blood samples.  Coloring hair is fighting a losing battle and frying peoples' scalps.  Anti-bacterial soap seeps into streams, lakes, rivers and then into the ocean from water treatment plants and kills or alters aquatic life.  Pesticides kill pests, but also kill beneficial insects and animals. Whether the damage is seen today or ultimately detected tomorrow, what are we doing to the natural world?  Why do we think we can take some pieces of the puzzle, throw them out, and still think the puzzle looks great? Why can't we shape ourselves to fit into the natural world, instead of trying to shape the natural world to fit us?  Wouldn't it be easier just to change ourselves? There are natural pest controls.  But I am sure this question was never asked in the 1940s:  "Why are the mosquito populations so out of control?"  What has caused the imbalance? What can we do, besides bombarding an area with dangerous pesticide, to control the undesired situation?  The problem is, most human beings do not think that way.  They do not see the "big picture." They do not see that one missing part of the puzzle ... one alternation ... can cause serious adverse effects in the entire area.

So this brings me to natural gas drilling, specifically hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." What are we doing to the natural world by injecting underground wells with a lethal cocktail of chemicals? Why are we using egregious amounts of the most precious resource known to man -- water -- to perform this extraction? Why aren't we exploring the alternatives to natural gas?  Why can't we shape our needs to fit within the natural world ... within what is freely available to us in the form of wind power, solar energy and geo-thermal conductivity? Are we that ego-maniacal? Or are we just determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, over and over again, until we finally kill off every living thing and implode the planet? Once we get to that point, all the puzzle pieces will be gone and no amount of creative arrangement will bring them back again.

Dark Side of the Boom... Rising in South Texas This Weekend

Logistics for Anti-Fracking Tour: The Dark Side of the Boom
June 10, 11, 12th

Friday, June 10th
Laredo's UTHSCA-Laredo auditorium
1937 E. Bustamante, Laredo TX
Time to be there: 5 P.M. for Reception
Location: Second Floor of Auditorium

Day 2 Saturday, June 11th
Pleasanton's River City Park
1220 River Park Road.
Pavilion One, next to the playground
Park in park areas, watch one-way streets
Presentation begins at 10:00 A.M.
Remain in Pleasanton for approximately two hours.

Cuero, TX
Cuero Municipal Clubhouse
Clubhouse sits at the intersection of roads immediately inside Cuero Municipal Park.
Presentation begins at 3 P.M.
Sister Elizabeth Riebschlager is our host. This event should last approximately two hours.

Day 3--Sunday, June 12th
Bryan First Unitarian-Universalist Church,
305 Wellborn Road, Bryan
Presentation begins at 2 P.M. and lasts approximately two hours

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Just Came Across This Lovely Little Gem...

How can an agency, who is in charge of regulating an industry, be actively promoting that same industry?  This makes absolutely NO sense to me.  The Texas Railroad Commission is in charge of regulating all the gas drilling going on in Texas, yet their fearless leader, Elizabeth Ames Jones, insists there is no problem with fracking, nor has there ever BEEN a problem with fracking.  She in fact states that "it is morally wrong to deprive Americans the benefit of their God-given natural energy resources because a few special interest Grimm Brothers insist on perpetuating fairy tales.”

Fairy tales? Really? I think the fairy tale is that natural gas is clean energy.  That's a total oxymoron.  The only clean energies are solar and wind.

It seems she has completely omitted the fact that fracking waste is also causing water issues as well as environmental degradation.

"The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits." -- Albert Einstein

Saturday, June 4, 2011

NPR Covers Fracking in south Texas...

"And our water is undrinkable right now. And the one thing that nobody's really talking much about is the air. You know, at night, there's a lot of flaring, a lot of venting, and the - you know, our neighbors' kids are sick all the time. Their animals are getting sick. And it's - gas is not as clean as what we thought. We thought this would be a great deal for everybody."

Flaring near cattle on FM 99 near Peggy, TX.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My View From Here

Hello Fellow South Texans,

This is my first blog entry.  I call my blog Texas Toast because, well, the state is slowly but surely drying up and burning.  In my 44 years, I have never seen the types of serious issues we are facing as a species today... climate change, over-development, and now, the natural gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom. 

I spent every summer as a child on the Texas gulf coast.  To get there from San Antonio, we drove highway 181 which meanders through farmland, ranch land, prairies, and sleepy little one-horse enclaves.  My dad would espouse the history of the area as we drove past the dusty storefronts and quaint little eateries.  He too traveled this area heavily, as a salesman first, and then sometimes as a hunter.  He knew the area well.  If he was still alive, he would be appalled to see what is happening to it in the name of greed, the economy, and "progress."

For those of you new to the subject, hydraulic fracturing is a controversial method used to extract natural gas deposits from deeply embedded shale deposits.  There is a huge shale formation that sits below the parched lands of south Texas.  It is called Eagle Ford Shale.  The shale itself is very brittle and not much gas can be extracted conventionally with vertical wells.

Hydraulic, or horizontal, fracturing involves process of initiating, and subsequently propagating a fracture in a rock layer, employing the pressure of a fluid as the source of energy. The fracturing is done from a well drilled into reservoir rock formations, in order to increase the extraction and ultimate recovery rates of oil and natural gas. Hydraulic fractures are mostly man-made and are extended by internal fluid pressure which opens the fracture and causes it to extend through the rock.  Man-made fluid-driven fractures are formed at depth in a borehole and extend into targeted formations. The fracture width is typically maintained after the injection by introducing a proppant into the injected fluid. Proppant is a material, such as grains of sand, ceramic, or other particulates, that prevent the fractures from closing when the injection is stopped.

Considerable controversy surrounds the current implementation of hydraulic fracturing technology in the United States. Environmental safety and health concerns have emerged and are being debated at the state and national levels.  There is a vast amount of water needed (and pulled from drinking water reservoirs) to perform the fracturing, and many known and unknown chemicals are used to assist the drilling and pumping activity.  The waste water and chemicals are then either left in the ground or pumped back to the surface and stored in open pits until (and if) the waste can be treated.

In future posts, I will discuss more details about the process and its effects on people, wildlife, and the environment.  One thing I know for sure is that Texas will live to regret the day it ever heard the phrase "fracking."  I love south Texas and I am going to do whatever I can to help it survive.