The Land Grabs and the Carelessness of Fracking

By Nick Braune…

I am new to this issue and it has some technical sides, but I’ve learned enough about fracking lately to be concerned.

“Fracking” is short for hydraulic fracturing. A narrow hole is drilled deep down into the ground.  According to the website for the excellent documentary “Gasland,” produced by Josh Fox, drilling can go down 8,000 feet, 24 football fields down. Then a mix of water, sand and chemicals is repeatedly shot down the hole, with very high pressure, cracking open the hard shale and rock and releasing treasured natural gas.

Although across the country there is opposition to it, and although some areas have stopped fracking because it ruins the land and the water and causes mini earthquakes, it’s rampant in Texas. Remember when candidate Perry bragged about the Texas economy? — Well, fracking did contribute to that little boost in employment.  You can see signs of fracking driving from McAllen to San Antonio; it’s all over the state. (Incidentally, have you noticed all the ads recently for “clean,” “natural” gas?  These ads alone make me suspicious.)

The “Gasland” documentary received a 2011 Academy Award nomination.  One famous scene features a fellow in rural Pennsylvania where fracking is happening.  He showed the camera team that if he turned on his kitchen faucet for water, there would also be gas and chemicals coming out.  He held a lighter to the faucet and it looked like a flaming torch coming out — that’s how much gas and chemicals were in his water!  Matt Damon also is planning a film about the fracking craze, “The Promised Land.”

According to the “Gasland” website, in 2005 a Bush/Cheney energy bill created what’s called the “Halliburton loophole,” preventing environmentalists from objecting to fracking on the basis of the Clean Water Act, and exempting companies from disclosing the chemicals used in the process.  Now there is a speculative rush all over the country to get into it; the riches being promised by natural gas fracking are causing quite a burstable investment bubble.

A Reuters report (October 3) on gas “land grab” practices interviewed a couple in Arlington Texas who did not want to sell drilling rights to Chesapeake Energy Corporation — the couple opposed fracking.  (Watch how Gov. Perry’s Texas really respects property rights.)  The couple was pressured and offered money but would not sell, so Chesapeake went to a Texas state agency, got what is called an “exception,” and drilled under them anyhow.  The couple received no money.  Reuters investigated and found that Chesapeake has asked Texas for 1,628 such exceptions.  The state agency has turned down only five exception requests and granted all the rest.  And Exxon-Mobil has received about 800 such exceptions. 

I emailed Alyssa Burgin, an environmentalist who watches land and water issues and directs the Texas Drought Project, and I asked if the Reuter’s article was exaggerating about “land grab” practices. She agreed with the article.

Burgin said, when “landmen” approach landowners they often lie. “Landmen lie about how much money owners will receive, and about how clean they will leave the land. Worse, even when people clearly own both surface and minerals, landowners are told that they had better sign, or the companies will drill right next door, horizontally burrow under, and get their oil or gas anyway — so they ‘might as well sign.’”

Fracking is mean business, from beginning to end.     [This article first appeared in “Reflection and Change” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, 10-7-12, but let me add here the following paragraphs as a postscript.] 

I also asked Alyssa Burgin a follow-up question about water issues, which I know she follows.  I had attended a presentation she helped organize in Corpus Christi, but had arrived late and didn’t quite understand if franking was a water-issue problem because it uses too much water or because it poisons the water somehow.  Her answer was interesting:

“There are two issues with water. First, I will address ‘produced’ water, the water that is used to frack and then either left in open pits or hauled away to who knows where. They use seven to ten million gallons of water per frack per hole in the Eagle Ford. That water is polluted with a laundry list of toxins–benzene, toluene, and a couple of hundred more chemicals, many of which are “proprietary,” and thus not revealed to the public. Some drillers say they can clean up the water to make it potable. Not possible. Even if there were a way to remove all the chemicals, in South Texas, there is so much uranium below ground that the water becomes radioactive. Now, the areas where they are fracking are among some of the most active farming areas–corn, cotton, alfalfa. Most of those crops died in this year’s drought, and it was not unusual to see dead corn next to fracking fields. The drillers compare their water use to water acreage used for agriculture in this state. But the agricultural water used returns to the hydrological cycle through trans-evaporation. The produced water does not.  

“And additionally, the second issue–there are some recorded incidents of contamination of wells and underground water resources from fracking. The industry says this is not true, but that is because they literally pay people to shut up; their legal awards to the victims require a gag order. No joke. You can drive through areas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania where every single house has a big water tank in the yard, furnished by the same exact company. Clearly they are getting water as a result of an agreement with the drillers.  Unfortunately, because of short-sighted Texas law, and because we have a patchwork of water regs that vary from county to county, we have almost no way of determining how much of our water is gone. Forever.”

Some History of Solitary Confinement in America

By Nick Braune…

In the 1790s in the Philadelphia home of Dr. Benjamin Rush, an important discussion took place. This was during that period when Americans were trying to formulate what it would be like to have a democratic republic which could tap the best qualities in everyone. This particular meeting was held to discuss what would be proper punishment (effective punishment, but not vengeful, cruel or inhumane) for those who broke the laws. What sort of penal system should develop in a thoughtful new democratic republic?

A number of Quakers were at the meeting, and also the great statesman and nation-founder Benjamin Franklin. (If I could travel back in history, I would surely visit Franklin.) At the meeting Franklin probably made several comments about the ineffectiveness of locking criminals up with criminals. He probably reminded the group that the purpose should be to reform people who have gone wrong, not to put them in situations that would make them worse.

Perhaps stimulated by Franklin’s practical thinking and also by some insights from Quakers (famous for quiet meditation), the reformers decided that solitary confinement would be a good idea. Their plan sprang from good intentions: Build an institution where criminals could be all alone, could reconsider their attitudes, and could become “penitent,” asking God for forgiveness and turning around their lives. This first “penitentiary” was for solitary penitents. But the plan didn’t work. Solitary confinement did not lead to reformed lives but rather to terrible nervous breakdowns and to worse forms of behavior. The Quakers soon recognized the folly and admitted their error.

I recently learned about that early Philadelphia meeting from a new documentary, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard,” produced by an interreligious coalition which gathers data and tries to bring “light and transparency” to America’s immense prison system. The coalition agrees with international standards which consider solitary confinement a form of torture. For the DVD, google the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. (nrcat.org/backyard)

In the 1890s, a century after the Philadelphia meeting, solitary confinement was almost outlawed in America. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller, who was also a physician, pointed to the terrible psychological consequences of the practice: “Numbers of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide.” Miller’s 1890 description of victims falling into those three conditions — catatonic, raging or suicidal — also confirms research done today. (My source: Washington Post editorial, July 1, 2012. This editorial condemning solitary confinement is part of an immense sea-change on this question over the last few years.)

The Washington Post reports on a “human rights issue we cannot ignore”: the U.S. has a higher number of prisoners in this torturous confinement than any democracy in the world. Right this second there are probably 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in this country, some for months, years. Interestingly, when the state of Maine began re-conceptualizing its policies recently, it found out that it had more people in solitary confinement than did all of England…even though England has 40 times more people than Maine!

America’s solitary confinement practices, symbolized by the “supermax” prisons heralded during the Clinton years, are too expensive, don’t fix bad behavior, and are increasingly out of sync with the practices of many other countries. More importantly, these cruel practices are immoral, as the National Religious Campaign against Torture rightly insists.

Quick Note: Curious about Texas? According to a Houston Chronicle article by Diane Schiller last year, there are 5,205 in long term isolation, “administrative segregation,” and another 4,000 serving short term stints in isolation in Texas. Also the Texas Observer in 2010 ran an article about children in Texas held in pre-trial solitary (for their own protection, it is said) sometimes for weeks or months.

Another Quick Note: The 20-minute DVD mentioned earlier, http://www.nrcat.org/backyard, is easily available for under ten dollars. It was shown last week during the regular Sunday service at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in San Juan, and the discussion afterward was said to be lively and thoughtful.

[This piece also appears in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, 8-21-12]