Fracking: Coming to a City or Suburb Near You

By Jason Mark

The controversial practice of fracking is just something that happens in the woods of Pennsylvania or the empty stretches of the Mountain West, right? … Right? Think again. Fracking, once a purely rural phenomenon, may be coming to a city or suburb near you.

The practice of using thousand of gallons of water mixed with sand and caustic chemicals to shatter underground shale formations (the technical term is hydraulic fracturing) first gained notoriety in the dairy country of Pennsylvania and upstate New York. In addition to concerns about methane contamination of their water wells or the disposal of briny, slightly radioactive fracking wastewater, rural folks worried about how the natural gas rush was ruining their bucolic way of life . The drilling came with strange smells, noise pollution, light pollution from the illuminated well pads, and a dramatic increase in large truck traffic on backcountry roads. Deer hunters in Pennsylvania complained that drilling operations were ruining their autumn pastime. In Wyoming — a place famous for its long distance vistas — measurements of ground level ozone have been worse than smoggy Los Angeles due to the massive amounts of gas drilling. As an impressive investigative series on fracking by NPR demonstrated, many people who live next to fracking wells find the co-existence too close for comfort.

Now imagine those concerns translated to suburban or urban areas with much higher population densities. Geologic formations don’t respect zoning ordinances, and some significant fossil fuel deposits are located underneath major cities. Parts of Cleveland sit above the gas reserves of the Devonian Shale, while Buffalo lies on top of the Utica Shale and Little Rock above the Fayetteville Shale. Oil and gas firms are, naturally, eager to tap into those deposits — and that’s setting up a showdown with city residents who aren’t enthusiastic about having a drilling pad for a neighbor.

See, for example, the turmoil in Los Angeles County, where a company called PXP is hoping to expand its fracking operations at the Inglewood oil field. The site isn’t anything like the rustic woodlands of Pennsylvania. Located in an incorporated area between Culver City, Baldwin Hills and View Park, the 1,100-acre spread is the largest urban oil field in the US. More than one million people live within five miles of the hundreds of wells there. The field’s productivity had been on a steady decline until PXP started using fracking methods around 2003 to get at the estimated 50 percent of petroleum reserves that are inaccessible through more conventional drilling methods.

The practice went mostly unnoticed by area neighbors until January 10, 2006 — when a fracking accident at the Inglewood field released a cloud of toxic fumes and forced the evacuation of some residents of Baldwin Hills and Culver City. Last year, residents settled a lawsuit with PXP that, among other things, calls for closer air monitoring, noise abatement, and a reduction of the total number of wells from 600 to 500 by 2028.

But the settlement still allows for PXP to frack at least 30 new wells a year, and many neighbors remain nervous. One concerned resident is Paul Ferrazzi, a movie cameraman and Culver City resident who heads a group called Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community. When asked why he is worried about increased fracking at the Inglewood field, Ferrazzi rattled off what have become the usual criticisms of hydraulic fracturing: “ground and surface water contamination … the use of large amounts of the precious resource of water in drought-prone California, the use of chemicals that are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and possible airborne human exposure.”

Ferrazzi has another worry that is an especially sensitive issue in California — “increased seismicity in a heavily faulted area.” A recent study has demonstrated a connection between fracking and minor earthquakes, and has fueled LA area residents’ concerns about how the Inglewood fracking could trigger a quake. The oil field is named for the Newport-Inglewood fault that bisects the area. According to FEMA, the fault is capable of generating a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. (In comparison, the last major earthquake in LA, the 1994 Northridge quake, measured 6.4 on the Ricther scale; 57 people died in that tremor, which caused about $20 billion in damage.)

A spokesperson for PXP declined to respond to Ferrazzi’s concerns, and instead directed me to the website to learn more about the company’s plans.

Tupper Hull, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association (of which PXP is not a member) was more forthcoming. “Hydraulic fracturing is a technology that has been used in California for some 60 years,” he told me. “It’s been used principally for oil production. The technology is fundamentally no different [from gas drilling], but the scale and size can be different. In 60 years, no one has claimed or identified any environmental risk with hydraulic fracturing in California. That is the salient fact that people need to consider.”

I asked Hull about the emerging science connecting fracking with increased seismic activity, and he said: “Well, again, for 60 years this activity has been going on, and no one has ever suggested it has caused an earthquake. The fact that some [seismic] activity has taken place in some areas with entirely different geology doesn’t strike us as a compelling reason to launch some big campaign in California.”

Hull was referring to an effort by the fracking critics at Food & Water Watch to ban the practice in California, just as Vermont recently did. California officials are in the process of sifting through the various claims and counterclaims of fracking opponents and proponents. The state’s Department of Conservation is hosting workshops across California this summer to take public comment on the practice of hydraulic fracturing and to help lawmakers rewrite the state’s regulations covering the procedure.

As they reconsider the state’s fracking regulations, California officials might want to look at the experience of Fort Worth, Texas — the epicenter of urban fracking.

The city of 740,000 people lies above the Barnett Shale, which some experts have called the largest onshore natural gas field in the United States. Today the city is home to at least 1,400 natural gas wells; drilling companies have received permits for another 498 wells that are not yet in operation. Texas, of course, is the fossil fuel industry’s home base. But even there, it seems, people like their drilling wells at a comfortable distance, and gas rush has led to a surprising backlash.

“What was once a very nice town, much quieter and more easy going than Dallas, has become an industrial town, and it’s driving people away in droves,” said Don Young, a life-long resident who founded a group called Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance. When he’s not agitating against the gas companies, Young, 60, makes stained glass windows for churches. “Living in Fort Worth has become intolerable. This is a big, heavy industrial operation. There’s no nice way to do it. There’s no way to drill safely, in my opinion, especially in the middle of a city.”

Young says he has two main worries about the gas boom: the way in which the network of drilling pads, pipelines and compressor stations have impacted Fort Worth’s limited amounts of open space, and drilling’s impact on air quality. Fort Worth has never been known for its pristine air — the larger Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area routinely ranks as one of the American Lung Association’s worst cities for ground level ozone (or smog). Last year, ozone levels in the region spiked dramatically, and there were more than 30 days when the area violated federal ozone standards. Fort Worth also has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the state; about 18 percent of children there suffer from the chronic ailment. Scientists have demonstrated clear links between ozone levels and asthma rates.

Another Fort Worth critic of the gas rush, Gary Hogan, a former member of the city’s Gas Drilling Task Force, was spurred to anti-fracking activism after a well was drilled 600 feet behind his home. Hogan calls Fort Worth “an urban experiment in gas drilling” and says one of his biggest worries is how to protect public safety amid so many industrial sites. “I will never believe that doing this gas drilling in a dense urban environment — with all the infrastructure and risk factors it comes with, the potential for explosions in neighborhoods — is safe,” he said.

Fort Worth’s drilling regulations mandate that well pads be at least 600 feet from homes. But drilling companies can apply for a variety of waivers, and Hogan says some wells are as close as 200 or 300 feet from people’s houses. “The setbacks are totally ridiculous,” Hogan said.

Similar fears about protecting public safety were a driving force behind Pittsburgh’s 2010 ordinance banning fracking in the city limits. “Our firefighters are not trained to deal with a [gas] well fire,” former Pittsburg City Councilman Doug Shields, who sponsored the fracking moratorium ordinance, told me in an interview earlier this year for a separate story. “The mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, had been a big supporter of [the gas industry.] When I introduced the legislation, he issued a statement saying the city would prepare for pollution, well fires, and other disasters. My response was, ‘I’d rather not.’”

Fort Worth fracking opponents say that other communities should beware of gas companies who come into a city promising a big payday. Few homeowners cash out Beverly Hillbillies-style, they warn, especially when gas prices are at record lows. “We were sold a bill of goods,” Hogan said. “There is no money in this for people who live on residential lots. There is no reason to get involved with this right now anyway, because the return on what you are going to make is nothing.”

Before hanging up the phone, he told me: “People need to ask themselves: Do you really want to end up with a gas well behind your house?’ Because I know what it’s like. It’s not worth it to sacrifice your neighborhood. You really don’t want to do this.”

This post originally appeared on Earth Island Journal

Related Stories:

Are Shale Gas Lobbyists Winning?

Obama Still Can’t Say “Climate Change”

Vermont First State to Ban Fracking

Photo credit: ProgressOhio


Megan D.
Megan H5 years ago

If fracking were to be proven as a reliable and safe way to drill for natural gas, rural areas seem to be the appropriate areas for wells. Having a well 600ft from a home is pushing it when this drilling practice is under harsh speculation. So, why do these drills keep popping up in residential areas? Government officials claim that the economic benefits outweigh possible threats to citizens’ health and safety. It seems as if government officials are ignoring speculations concerning loyalties being tied to oil and gas campaign contributions. There seems to be no concern with health and environmental risks. Instead, officials claim that the budget crisis and job growth serves as a justification for urban drilling. According to Sharon Ward, executive director for the PA Budget and Policy Center, little tax revenue goes to local government to spread the benefits of economic growth to the citizens who have these wells as neighbors. People seem to be blinded by short-term gains and the long-term perspective of drilling is put on the backburner. Should short-term effects be the sole purpose of drilling in urban areas or should government officials begin to take long-term effects into consideration and put a hold on urban drilling?
Take a look at these interesting articles for more insight on how the short-term effects of urban drilling do not outweigh the long-term risks.
- http://www.nytime

CC CC5 years ago

Everyone needs to Demand TRUTH be publicized from All our Media. Some say we must free ourselves from foreign energy LoL. Does anyone know just how much Foreign Energy, Fresh Drinking Water and Tax Payer Funds are Subsidizing Fracking?

Its a Deadly Practice but what is so puzzling is its Controversial.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B5 years ago


Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

The overburden drilled through to get to the oil shale should be raw material for bricks—maybe adobe. If you would make a brick wall to screen the view from the sensitive area drilled next to, that should improve relations with the regulatory agency protecting the area. You could also make housing for drilling rig personnel. I have read that CO2 has been used for Enhanced Oil Recovery, pump CO2 into an almost depleted oil well, bring it back up and separate oil from CO2, send CO2 back down for more oil. Global Thermostat makes a device using a patent-pending resin with sodium hydroxide to absorb CO2 from ambient air when dry, release CO2 when wet. It is so new they must still be beta testing it. If you want to do Enhanced Oil Recovery with CO2, maybe you can get them to beta test their product at your site and provide you with CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery. I understand that wherever neither seismic fault lines nor aquifers that must not be contaminated are in the way, hydraulic fracturing is the most efficient way to loosen hydrocarbons from their underground location to pump up. Where hydraulic fracturing is not feasible, I am not sure whether it is more efficient to remove as much oil shale as possible by drilling (without letting the drilled passages collapse) before using Enhanced Oil Recovery or to do a minimal amount of drilling before switching to Enhanced Oil Recovery.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

With recent advances is directional well drilling and robot controlled well drill bits, it should be at least technically feasible to extract almost any underground natural resources from under almost any surface resource, from iconic historic site to farm field to wild life preserve, with minimal disturbance to the surface from a single maybe house-size drill pad outside the surface area to be left undisturbed. The main advantage would be a major reduction in NIMBY screaming which would cut down on the length of time needed to get approval. With oil shale, there is sometimes the added problem that the oil is half-baked and thus extra thick and tarry. With one of those mini-oil refineries that can separate coal from heavy metals or turn organic waste material into crude oil, the drilling mud with oil shale in it could go into the mini-refinery which would finish cooking the oil and recover the water so hot (600-700 F) and under so much pressure it could run a steam turbine to generate electricity for the drilling site. The lubricant added to the water pumped into the well behind the drill bit for drilling mud would get mixed in with the crude oil. Especially if you used a laser or electric arc very hot drill bit, the drilling mud would be so hot, you would need to automate its handling to avoid scalding anyone. The overburden drilled through to get to the oil shale should be raw material for bricks—maybe adobe. If you would make a brick wall to screen the view from

Deborah F.
Deborah F5 years ago


Stefan Dwornik

These people are so greedy that despite the science, they 100% back the petroleum industry, they do not care if it means poisoning the water & the air we breath, so long as they squeeze out that mighty dollar.. Our food supply will be contaminated add that to the months of Crude pouring (millions upon millions) into the Gulf, the Tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan continues to leak radioactivity in to the Pacific, and now the radioactivity/pollution has made it across the Pacific to North American. At the rate we are going will we even have time to stand up for the right's of Women, or the other twisted agenda off the "Christian' republicans, and they're favorite target, those of us who are children of God,but judged by these 'Christians' who on read & manipulate the Bible are due to be shipped off to die.

Winn Adams
Winn Adams5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Ernie Miller
william Miller5 years ago

Good Idea lets require all politicans to have a fracking well in their back yard for 5 years before requiring them in any one elses in the effected areas. and require the companies to give the exact compensation the did the politicans. Who must liv in them home why the fracking is going on. It would not hurt to require any one working for a fracking company to have one in their back yard also.

Pamela C.
Pamela C5 years ago

I'd like to see them frack Mitt Romney's land.