By Robert K. Johnson
Johnson has been a Roanoke County resident for 38 years. He is a retired senior environmental engineer, formerly with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Over the past few months, The Roanoke Times has published many letters opposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline and some supporting it. Those in support seem to share one glaring flaw: They avoid or, at least, minimize any discussion of the environmental costs associated with fracked gas and pipelines.
So start with the effects of hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, which is the source of the natural gas for all of the proposed pipelines in Virginia. This is the process whereby highly pressurized fluid is injected into the ground to fracture shale and release natural gas.
The process was invented by the Halliburton Company. While fracking fluid is mostly water, 300 to 600 different chemicals have been cited for use in fracking operations. Some are known to be highly toxic and carcinogenic; others are proprietary and therefore not subject to public scrutiny.
Once the shale has been fractured, the water (further contaminated with heavy metals, salts, hydrocarbons and other toxic materials) is returned to the surface with the released gas. The tens of millions of gallons of wastewater generated per site must be stored in large pits, deep underground wells, or treated at wastewater facilities.
The costs? Fracking has resulted in the contamination of water supplies and surface waters as documented at more than 1,000 sites. An MVP partner itself currently faces six criminal charges tied to such water pollution.
Cases linking human health issues including sensory, respiratory and neurological damage have been reported due to ingesting the contaminated water. Note: Fracking was illegal for 20 years under the Safe Drinking Water Act, until Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force issued a waiver (known as the “Halliburton Loophole”), allowing gas companies to use this injection method. Cheney was the former CEO of Halliburton.
Then, consider the misconception that natural gas is a clean fuel. While natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel and far from clean. In terms of carbon, it emits 117,000 pounds of CO2 and 40 pounds of CO per billion Btu of energy input versus 64,000 pounds and 33 pounds, respectively, for oil and 208,000 pounds and 208 pounds, respectively, for coal. The costs? Natural gas, especially from energy-intensive fracking, contributes to our carbon footprint, air pollution and, ultimately, global warming.
And, in truth, greater natural gas production will simply add to, not necessarily replace, existing energy sources. We are at a critical time in the history of our planet when 97 percent of the world’s scientists, based on facts, tell us we must reduce our carbon emissions or suffer irreversible consequences. CO2 levels have increased from less than 300 ppm in 1950 to around 400 ppm today (unprecedented in the last 2 million years) and are now increasing by more than 2 ppm annually. The costs? Scientific reports and articles describe the increasing sea levels, weather disruption, and species losses (and probable geopolitical upheaval) that we face if significant changes are not made to keep CO2 levels well below 450 ppm. In light of this, should we be developing another source of fossil fuel, rather than encouraging non-carbon-based alternatives?
But perhaps the least examined and most overlooked environmental threat from fracking is the construction and maintenance of the required pipelines: the subject of the current debate in our region. The costs? Each of the three proposed pipelines in Virginia would carve 125-foot swaths of destruction through forests, steep mountainous terrain and wetlands, and cross numerous rivers and creeks. Blasting, clearing, grading, sedimentation, and spraying herbicides would be devastating to sensitive ecosystems and organisms (including endangered and rare species) and could disrupt entire watersheds and water supplies in the areas traversed. These impacts alone should give us pause. In the words of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winner and pre-eminent biologist, “Destroying forest [and I would add any ecosystem] for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”
Our children and their children will be the ones who will pay the price if we continue to frack and build pipelines. They will be the ones who will ultimately judge our decisions. I suspect they will not consider a few temporary jobs and enormous profits for a few corporations a good trade if the planet they inherit is a wasteland. So, in this debate, environmental costs — or I should say, real costs — should not be discounted or ignored in favor of other arguments.