Stephen Cleghorn presentation at Red Bank, New Jersey on the occasion of a book signing and public forum to discuss the new book Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch. April 4, 2013
Good evening. I have been asked to talk about the impacts of fracking on our food system: I will take these in somewhat reverse order of how often they are mentioned in literature on the impacts of fracking on farming and the food system. Impacts least mentioned may be the most important.
I will touch on oft-mentioned issues, too. These will be little more than bullet points because of tonight’s time limitations. If you want more detail, go to my farm website at www.paradisegardensandfarm.com where I have posted a PowerPoint on the need to stop this extreme form of natural gas extraction. In addition, many reports on impacts to farms, farmers and livestock can be accessed by an Internet search of the phrase “List of the Harmed.” http://pennsylvaniaallianceforcleanwaterandair.wordpress.com/the-list/ More than 1,200 cases of harm are collected there, examining pathways of contamination via air, water, accidents and spills, you name it. An invaluable resource.
So here are some of the major impacts on farming and the food system that I see, and some connections between Big Oil/Gas and Big Agriculture.
- Climate Change: The big picture for farmers is the same as the big picture for all of humanity. A farmer watches the weather closely. Weather is changing and could change so drastically as to wipe out any need to feed humans because we will be gone. The International Energy Agency has predicted that “Golden Age of Gas” will leads to more than 6°F warming and out-of-control climate change. Such a rise in temperature will have drastic consequences for the continuation of many species, including perhaps our own. NOAA reports 9% methane leakage form the natural gas infrastructure. Not only is there no climate benefit from the fact that gas burns more cleanly than coal at combustion, but there is a negative climate impact, increasing global warming in the short term with a greenhouse gas many time more potent than CO2 when we should be working on very energy front to reduce the causes of global warming.
- Increased natural gas development, the cheaper price of shale gas, and the deterioration of our food system are directly linked. From “The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking” by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones magazine. I quote: “US agriculture is highly reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized in a process fueled by natural gas… Industrial agriculture’s reliance on plentiful synthetic nitrogen brings with it a whole bevy of environmental liabilities: excess nitrogen that seeps into streams and eventually into the Mississippi River, feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea life; emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide; and the destruction of organic matter in soil.
(At current prices) it takes about $82 worth of natural gas to make a ton of anhydrous ammonia, which is selling for about $800 per ton.”
Huge expansions of nitrogen fertilizer plants are underway, a move designed to “take advantage of low natural gas costs and high grain prices.” The American Farm Bureau Federation… supports additional access for exploration and production of oil and natural gas, including the use of hydraulic fracturing.”
- The fracturing of rural community. Small farmers are part of a community that sustains itself on common values, a devotion to hard work and care for the land. Some of these values are inimical to the gas industry’s need to turn the countryside into an industrialized gas field that yields easy money for a few at the expense of the many. So the industry must first fracture the community before they can fracture the shale. An ethnographic study called “It’s Like We’re Losing Our Love” by Dr. Simona Perry has documented the loss of community cohesion as the land is commoditized for sheer profit – which is very unevenly distributed – and loses its moorings in Nature. The increase of “Haves” and Have Nots” is a common outcome in counties where energy extraction becomes dominant.
Now what about the water, the air and health of animals and people?
- First the Big Picture – the scale and density of this development. We are talking about living in a gas field. This is an industry without boundaries, not subject to zoning restrictions we would normally use for such activities to set them off from human habitation. This extraction requires a relentless density of well pads (1 to 2 pads per square mile) and compressor stations and mid-stream facilities and new pipelines. What is happening is the overlay of an industrialized gas field onto a pre-existing rural landscape of farms, forests, homes and human communities, requiring every living being within that landscape to become subject to 24/7 exposure to hydrocarbons wafting un plumes through the air. There will be increasing exposure to stream or ponds or pastures or water tables into which toxic drilling and flowback fluids have spilled.
- Water is contaminated – short run and long run: In the short run by spills, dumping of toxic wastes, burial of toxic waste pits, and by failed well casings (6-7% failure rate of the steel and concrete casings) allowing the migration of gases and liquids into underground strata or rock, perhaps into abandoned well bores, through per-existing fractures spaces in the rock, and into groundwater sources. Has happened hundreds if not thousands of times, but difficult to study and prove or else covered up by court settlement gag orders. Thus the industry claims “no documented case of groundwater contamination.” In the long run, speaking only of PA, one-half the land mass will receive 100,000 plus well bores over the next 50 years, each of these (even if perfectly capped) thousands of times more porous that the rock through which they were drilled, a conduit for future disaster, encased in steel and concrete that can fail at the outset and will certainly move and crack and fail over the next 50-100 years, allowing methane and other gases, perhaps fluids laced with carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals along with water soluble radioactive elements of the shale, to reach groundwater. No science says this cannot happen. The wells must hold up in perpetuity for it not to happen.
- Air is polluted and becomes a danger to human and animal health. Increases in ground-level ozone, random plumes of volatile organic compounds, flaring that releases dozens of sickening compounds into the air, people having nosebleeds and experiencing chemical contamination serious enough to cause loss of smell and neurological damage. More animals will experience and get sick from and die from aspiration pneumonia as their lungs take in the hydrocarbons of the gas field.
- Animals are sickened and dead. The Michele Bamberger-Robert Oswald study documented 24 cases of livestock and companion animals sickened and dead from exposure to toxic substances carried through water and air. The List of the Harmed that I mentioned reports many more cases.
- Farms and the countryside are becoming sacrifice zones for the energy needs of large urban areas, but not because the city people want that, but because our energy choices are constrained by the power of Big Oil & Gas that stand in the way of devoting appropriate resource to renewable and sustainable energy sources.
Fracking cannot be done safely as it is currently done and no amount of “green completion” regulation can remove its most serious long-term risks. And it is a stupid doubling-down on our reliance on burning fossil fuels for energy while the planet’s climate heats up around us.
Can I take just one more minute to say how I see the interconnectedness of all these issues and the kind of change in thinking we need to address this despoliation of our farms?
At the root of our problems is a human arrogance and disdain for Nature and its ways and gifts. Wendell Berry gives us an idea of the kind of respect for Nature we need.
Wendell Berry, from Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Rather than this vision of harmony with the ways of nature that we hear in Wendell Berry’s poem, we find ourselves living in the death grip of a fossil fuel era desperately trying to maintain its dominance over our lives, with its acolytes and servants proclaiming the good they do for humanity in powering our lives. Description of that death grip reads like a run-on sentence from hell itself:
“Under the capitalist imperative of profit we are steadily turning the earth into a blank medium into which genetically modified seeds and fossil fuel fertilizers are inserted by global chemical, oil and gas corporations that conspire with Big Agriculture to own the seeds and make the highest profits for a very few, at the expense of what goes on inside millions of our bodies, creating a brave new world of cheap food that yields Type-2 diabetes and food allergies and skyrocketing rates of autism and cancer, while all the while Big Insurance and Big Pharma build a bigger health care system that happily creates ever more jobs to pick up the pieces at the best profits that it too can achieve and the planet warms beyond recognition and those who call for a halt to the madness are deemed the mad ones by the powers that be in high political seats bought and purchased by the corporate titans of the fossil fuel era.”