Atmospheric Scientist here at Weather Underground, with serious nerd love for tropical cyclones and climate change. Twitter: @WunderAngela
By: Angela Fritz , 5:25 AM GMT on April 22, 2013
By Skyepony, Weather Underground Community member
A note from Angela:
"Fracking," or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of fracturing layers of rocks beneath the surface of the earth, using water and other chemicals and fluids, for the purpose of extracting natural gas that would otherwise be impossible to drill. For Earth Day, I wanted to surface the experience of one of our long-time true-blue Weather Underground community members. Skyepony has seen the front lines of the fracking industry from her family's tree farm in Mississippi, and she urges you to learn more about the fracking process and what it does to our environment, our health, and our families on this Earth Day.
This all started last spring when my family got together for a trip to check on the tree farm in southern Mississippi and to visit with relatives. En route to my uncle's farm, we gathered at a seafood restaurant and walked into an unexpected scene. A group of neighbors had gathered to join us, and boy, did they have news.
The oil companies were coming back.
Our neighbors told us the oil companies could recover the resources we all knew were lurking beneath the surface of the farm. They told us they could make our "dry holes" pay, which were drilled and capped back in the 1950s-1970s. Our neighbors and distant cousins were on a mission, and you could feel their intensity. This was a group of people who watch over the tree farm, and our family cemetery, every day. The neighbors and family who actually live there were bearing down for confirmation that we, too, would sign on the dotted line. If that happened, we could all cash in.
A WunderPhoto of the tree farm in southwest Mississippi. Almost 7 years after Katrina the damage can still be seen. This was the 3rd of the farm where the trees were destroyed by a tornado during the storm & then replanted.
The group needed to convince a fairly large percentage of us in a 16 square mile block in order for it to happen. They assumed they had convinced as many people as they needed. They knew they could roll us over either way, but wanted us to cash in with them. They frequently invoked our long-dead Great-Grandaddy who had insisted we hold the mineral rights until the day the oil companies came back, because that was all the land was ever going to be worth.
We nodded and expressed interest in looking into it, trying to hide our shock.
I did some research. What I found was that in 2011, Devon Energy and Encana, two North American oil and natural gas producers, began fracking the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale (TMS). According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, TMS is sedimentary rock that is rich with organic material, which was deposited 90 million years ago when the area was marine. The counties in Mississippi that were being considered for the fracking venture were Wilkinson, Amite, Adams, Pike, Walthall, and Franklin. The TMS "play," or potential petroleum-bearing area, is an unproven 7 billion barrel oil reserve that runs through central Louisiana and southwest Mississippi for a total of 2.7 million acres. It's potentially enough oil to supply the United States for a year (if they can extract all of it).
The location of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale (TMS) play, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
Some of this area was originally tapped and did produce oil, though many were dry holes, like what we had on the farm. However, now people were being told that this land could produce, through the magic of fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is where pressurized fluids of unknown origin are pushed deep into the earth with the intent of fracturing the sediments, which releases the otherwise undrillable fossil fuel. Fracking consumes 2.5 times the amount of energy, water, and effort of a traditional oil well, and though it produces up to 3 times the resources, the quality of oil and gas that's extracted is debatable. The TMS is known for containing both oil and liquid gas, which is more desirable to the industry than the dry, natural gas, which is typically sold at a much cheaper price.
Mississippi has been more than willing to invite fracking into the state, without consideration of where the 1 million gallons of water each well uses will come from, what the chemicals are that are being added, or the common practice of deep-injection disposal of the dirty water after it's been used. Two bills are currently in consideration to give sizable tax breaks to the oil companies involved in southwest Mississippi fracking. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant announced that natural gas was a top priority in the new statewide energy policy. It is part of the T. Boone Pickens plan to run vehicles off natural gas. Natural gas stations could be opening across Mississippi by 2014. Exporting the resource out of Louisiana to the global market is also a hot topic.
The individual communities and counties pulled together and started discussing the potential impact on roads, and considered the angry people that didn't have mineral rights to cash in on. Discussions ranged from where they could draw water, to where money for road improvements would come from, to increasing law enforcement. They are even trying to secure state money for another chancery judge since there will certainly be more lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the oil companies have done their homework. Encana owns 310,000 acres on the TMS, Devon has 250,000 acres, Indigo II Louisiana Operating has around 240,000 acres, Amelia Resources has 110,000 acres, and Goodrich Petroleum owns approximately 74,000. Some of this property was was bought for as low as $175 an acre in the recent real estate depression. They appear to concentrate on both acquiring mineral rights and fresh water rights, along with finding available surface water to be drained, spoiled with fracking chemicals, and then hauled off to be injected into deep waste water wells. We know someone who had married into the family— this is how he made millions in Louisiana and Texas. He has a small drilling business, though deals mostly with land and mineral rights. He buys cheap land with the rights, drills it, and flips it. The trend is changing to "frack it and flip it." Any property for sale on the TMS is fair game.
I originally thought the tree farm would be safe, but that isn't the case. Six generations ago, William, my great, great, great, great-granddaddy, fought in the War of 1812. He was probably granted this land for his time spent defending Charleston, South Carolina. The original piece was large—large enough that today, if it was intact, it could hold out to fracking. Unfortunately three generations passed and the property was divided amongst the children. Some of it was sold to pay taxes. In the following generation, Great-Grandaddy worked hard to buy that portion back and was successful. That piece was divided several more times, so that now, many of my immediate family hold rights and have a say in what happens to our small portion. The segments of the farm are owned by close and distant kin, and some of them are people who managed to buy their way onto the property.
Though as much as I think fracking is horrible, my hands are tied. The decision is not mine. Even if it was, the land around the farm would be so heavily fracked that it would be impossible to protect it from the environmental consequences. Our farm's story is not exception—most of the land around the farm has been divided, inherited, or sold until 20 to few hundred acre-size tracts are common. Fortunately for us, the oil companies have drawn back the circus in our area, for the time being. I'm now hearing it is going to be 2 years before they are ready to drill in the farm's county. The companies are focusing more on the counties that are deeper in the play and have shown higher yields in the past. That buys a little more time for the farm before the frackers show, and perhaps a chance to change its fate. I'm glad I didn't decide to settle my life there.
The entire experience has shifted the way I see what needs to be done in order to stop the fracking industry. Convincing land owners will do nothing. They, like the land owners in the way of the Keystone XL pipeline, will most likely be compensated financially, but they won't be able to stop it. Until I approached this issue as a mineral rights owner, I never noticed how much the oil companies were "flipping" land, or how you need to own so many square miles to be able to stop them from using your neighbors against you. Politically, the regional government comprises well-to-do land owners that appear to want to cash off the land in any way possible. They are opening their doors and turning their heads. Local politicians in other areas have been successful in fending off the fracking companies, but not in southern Mississippi. Perhaps the answer for my farm is to concentrate on the federal laws that are treating the fracking industry unconventionally, letting them slide while they inject undisclosed chemicals into the ground, wasting billions of gallons of water, and releasing pollution into the air that other industries, including coal and conventional oil, couldn't get away with.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on the first federal environmental study on fracking. Results are due in 2014. Waiting on these results before allowing fracking has become a strategy in some local efforts across the nation.
Local anti-fracking efforts across the United States, their moratoriums and petitions to sign can be found here. Another wealth of information is a report the fracking industry had done on itself noting the effective grassroots efforts. It recommended giving in to all demands of the local movements, or risk being banned from fracking altogether. They also suggest making it more profitable to the land owners—directly pay all claims of loss, ruined land, and water. Pay anything not to go to court. Buy silence.
So on this Earth Day, instead of being silent, I urge you to learn more about fracking and talk to others about it.
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.