Most of the country is now familiar with hydraulic fracturing (fracking). It’s a method used to extract natural gas buried deep beneath the Earth. Despite some of the jargon that gets passed around, fracking hasn’t been around for 30 or more years. It has been used for around eight, as a means to release natural gas locked in layers of shale rock. I am very familiar with the process as I live in western Maryland which lies over the Marcellus Shale. Right now a war has broken out between those that favor fracturing the shale and releasing the gas and those that believe it will risk resident’s health. In states where fracking has been embraced (NY, WV, PA, TX, CO, etc) the process has become controversial as private water supplies suddenly became filled with chemicals, some even becoming flammable. As I learn more about fracking, I can’t help but wonder what it could mean to reef aquarists anywhere the process is embraced. Even if a clean water supply is available, we still require mass amounts of filtration to create high quality synthetic saltwater. Would it be possible to even maintain a marine aquarium if fracking chemicals leached into an aquarist’s water supply? How would an aquarist know their water had been effected and would you not learn until it was too late?
What is fracking?
Fracking combines two processes, horizontal drilling which allows a drill to travel deep beneath the Earth (several thousand feet) and turn horizontally. At this point it enters shale which over millions of years has sealed up natural gas. A round about explanation of natural gas is that it’s decayed organic matter so fermented that it contains all organisms’ original energy harvested from the sun. Since the gas is still sealed up, thousands and thousands of gallons of water and chemicals is pumped into the shale at high pressure. The chemicals, along with sand, help break up the shale rock and release the gas. The now toxic water is pumped back out of the ground and into a containment pond.
Fracking is a high tech process that utilizes a variety of equipment. It combines sciences like geology, chemistry and engineering. People familiar with the practice have equated it to rocket science, since there are many variables along with a host of unforeseen circumstances. Even after years of practice, it’s still very much a learning process with a large margin of area. Mistakes and unintended consequences lead to tainted water and even seismic disturbances such as earthquakes.
How does it affect water?
Fracking fluid is toxic, there is no question about that. It contains a plethora of noxious chemicals, one of which being flammable methane gas. During the Bush Administration something called the Halliburton loop-hole made fracking fluid exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Even though it’s called the Safe Drinking Water Act, any act that protects the quality of water is something marine aquarists shouldn’t take lightly. This exemption gives natural gas extraction companies a lot of leeway when storing, moving or discarding toxic fracking fluid. Usually this toxic fluid would require testing, inspection of storage ponds and a very careful analysis of its potential effect on water supplies. What has occurred in states were fracking has been embraced is a complete destruction of the aquifer due to contamination with fracking fluid.
Sadly fracking fluid isn’t the only thing tainting water during the process. In shale rock there are harmful gases locked away as decomposition broke down organic matter over millennia. These gases can rise up a natural gas well and if the well isn’t properly sealed (or the seal breaks down) they end up in the aquifer. To protect them from entering the aquifer natural gas extractors line the well with cement casing. Over time that cement breaks down, or it isn’t poured correctly in the first place. Once this happens, that gas is free to move into the aquifer, constantly pouring in and contaminating vast basins of formerly clean water. There are areas where natural gas exploration has left the water supply utterly useless, with residents requiring large water buffalos on site which require constant filling with water brought in from out of the area. There is no filtration method available to aquarists that would remove fracking contaminants and all of them would destroy any organism in a marine aquarium very quickly.
What would reefing in a fracked area be like?
Keeping a marine aquarium in or around a fracked gas well would be a constant concern. Well casing leaks or leeching fracking fluid can take time to occur even if safety protocol is followed. Since there is often no inspection of water quality around fracking, it would be hard to determine if it had happened. Each water change, top-off or anytime water from a water supply was used on your reef, it would be a game of Russian roulette. If any chemicals from the process were present in the water, your reef would likely cease to exist.
If something did occur and was documented, then imagine keeping a reef without a water supply. No reverse osmosis unit, no filtration device, nothing would remove toxic chemicals from your water supply. The only option would be to buy all your water from a store or use only natural seawater sold at aquarium outlets. Neither is very feasible. Purchasing bottled water would carry a tremendous expense and aquarists would be limited as to how they can filter water prior to mixing it for use in a reef. Natural seawater is very expensive, commanding 15-20 dollars for a scant five gallons. Depending on your tank size, a water change could cost several hundred dollars. In fact, if you were living in an area with active hydraulic fracturing nearby, it would be ill advised to use your water supply on your marine aquarium for any reason.
Marine and reef aquariums demand pure water and then require that it be made even better. Once water is in circulation, it’s a constant effort to maintain it at the highest possible quality. The chemicals that contaminate water during fracking would be impossible for aquarists to remove, rendering a water supply useless. For some the first sign that something was wrong began when their water was emitting a strong odor.
What can aquarists do?
Sadly we are a very small minority in the debate about fracking. Here in the area of Maryland I live, there might be a dozen or so reef keepers out of a population of 30,000. It’s important to note that fracking effects freshwater aquarists as well. The chemicals that overtake water would wreak equal havoc on a freshwater tank. If you live in an area where fracking is being proposed or actively taking place, it’s important to get involved with concerned citizens and contact your state’s representatives. Here in western Maryland, it’s a coalition of private citizens, business owners and scientists that stand between fracking and our right to clean water. I am not aware of any organized, nationwide coalition of aquarists against fracking, but establishing one wouldn’t be a bad idea. Fracking could affect an aquarist even it doesn’t take place where you live. Imagine if a facility such as Dr. Foster and Smith’s diver’s den or Quality Marine’s wholesale warehouse no longer had access to clean water.
Property rights is a quoted reason fracking should occur in any given area. If a property owner has a resource on their property, then they should without question be order to capitalize on that revenue. While that may be correct, it’s important to consider that their right to capitalize on that resource should not destroy another’s right to enjoy their property and be kept safe. For example, if an aquarist owned 1.5 acres of land, neighboring a 10 acre parcel in a fracking area, the 10 acre parcel’s owner may elect to lease their land to a gas company (often 10 acres is the minimum property amount considered for a lease). If a well was placed on the 10 acre parcel, it would be highly probably that it could affect the aquarist’s water quality, making it impossible to keep a marine aquarium. In this instance, one property owner’s rights have totally overtaken another’s. While the water may still be suitable for some uses, this aquarist can no longer pursue their passion for marine aquariums and has suffered a potentially upsetting defeat. Where once water existed that could maintain a healthy marine tank, now there is water that would wipe it out. If you’re an aquarist in an area that’s been fracked, or is being considered for fracking, feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org and perhaps we can all work together. Right to clean water walks hand in hand with our right to reef.