Fracking Our Farmlands

Fracking Site in Warren Center, PA. Picture by Ostroff Law (Wikimedia Commons)

By Genevieve Cottraux

Reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, animal deaths, as well as industrial disasters and explosions—all the result of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—are termed “fraccidents” by the group Earth Justice.  According to Emily Wurgh of  the environmental group Food and Water Watch, “The dangers of fracking to the food supply are not something that’s been investigated very much.  We have been trying to get members of Congress to request studies into effects of fracking on agriculture, but we haven’t gotten much traction.”  Catskills area farmer Ken Jaffe says, “For sustainable agriculture, fracking is a disaster.”

Since 2005, fracking has occurred in at least 32 states. Many of these states, such as California, Texas, Nebraska, Indiana, and North Carolina, are also among the top 10 agricultural states in terms of cash receipts from farming.  In California, the nation’s top agricultural producer and 3rd producer of oil, fracking has been banned in 6 counties as of 2016.  Not just fracking, but all new oil drilling, was banned in Monterey County by voters when they passed Measure Z with 56% of the vote last November.  Of the counties that ban fracking, Monterey is the only one with a significant oil industry and is also the 3rd top producing agricultural county in the state.  Chevron and Aera Energy have sued to block implementation of the ban.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial process by which oil or natural gas is extracted from shale rock deep underground.  It involves drilling into the shale and injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals.  This fractures the shale, and allows for the release of the gas inside.

Fracking has been employed commercially in the United States since 1949, when first put into use by Halliburton.  The technology behind the method can be traced as far back as the American Civil War when Colonel Edward Roberts developed the “Exploding Torpedo” method, patented in 1865.

The slang term “fracking” came into popular usage recently, however, and is avoided by the oil and gas industry itself.  In 2005, communications strategist Matthew Lewis, working at the time for the group Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) in their fight against the Bush administration’s recommendation that hydraulic fracturing be exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, coined the term fracking.

Proponents of fracking in the United States claim it has boosted oil production and driven down gas prices, as it allows drilling of otherwise difficult to access oil and natural gas resources.  A growing number of Americans are opposed to the practice despite its potential for lowering energy costs.  Among its negative effects of which the public is aware: it uses massive amounts of water, is linked to water pollution and contaminated drinking water, has been linked to several earthquakes, and utilizes hazardous chemicals.  Fracking has also been associated with carbon emissions, possibly exacerbating climate change.

What about farmland?  According to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, although many farmers have welcomed the leases being signed by oil and gas companies to conduct fracking on their land, and the opportunity for economic growth, others have pointed to farming’s reliance on “the integrity of the soil, clean water, and pollution-free air” and the safety of the food supply.

According to Mother Earth News,

In addition to reportedly making people sick from polluted water supplies, fracking may now be tainting our food supply…The polluted water is also threatening the health of the soil and crops near fracking sites.  As reported by The Nation, the Marcellus Shale formation in the northeast United States holds vast supplies of natural gas and is currently being fracked—yet it also spans an area that is home to three of the country’s highest concentrations of organic farms, which are in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  The fracking boom is radically changing the landscape of some areas in these states.  Farmers striving to avoid harmful chemicals are facing constant worry about their water supply containing toxic substances.

News site Take Part reports, “In states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Ohio, grazing animals have gotten sick and died after drinking fracking runoff and water from farm wells near fracking operations—often the main source of on-farm water.  They’ve been poisoned with everything from arsenic, propane, and cobalt to uranium and radium.”

Animal agriculture is already under scrutiny by some regarding issues of sustainability, pollution, and health.  The American food production system currently uses about 50% of total US land area, approximately 80% of the fresh water supply, and 17% of the fossil energy used in the country.  The energy input required for meat production is 11 times that required for grain production.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) begins its report The Impact of Industrialized Animal Agriculture on the Environment, “The continuous confinement of chickens, pigs, turkeys, cattle, and other animals raised in industrialized agricultural systems jeopardizes the animals’ welfare and degrades the environment.  Factory farms produce immense quantities of animal waste and byproducts, which threaten water and air quality and contribute to climate change.”

While it seems common sense to convert farmlands from an animal-agriculture system to a plant-based one, how do fracking and farm leases to oil and gas companies influence a move in this direction?  The Humane Party is involved in ongoing research and discussions on the transition from animal to plant-based agriculture, and vegan farming in comparison to farming that utilizes animal waste and animal by-products.

Land suitable for an array of plant crops has already been contaminated by the meat and dairy industries.  The degradation is compounded by the effects of oil drilling, including hydraulic fracturing.  In California, over 350,000 people have signed a petition to end the irrigation of crops with oil industry wastewater, the use of which has affected the raisins, oranges, and wine grapes grown in the state.  In the San Joaquin Valley of California, where 50% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown, oil companies are injecting millions of gallons of toxins into the soil.  The group Californians Against Fracking is a statewide coalition formed to ban fracking and dangerous drilling in the state.

The Humane Party’s Values Statement includes: “The practical path is to forgo unsustainable—and destructive—practices that weaken our economy, accelerate our health care costs, compromise our descendants’ fiscal future, squander our natural resources, engender hostility among our fellow nations, and endanger our national security.”  Both animal-based agriculture and the practice of fracking are unsustainable and destructive.