The upside of fracking and water contamination

Homeowner setting his water on fire, from the film GASLAND.

It’s become a cliché that water is the new oil. Experts predict that clean, fresh water will, by the end of the century, be as precious and hard to find as black gold is now. Business magazines and websites are already instructing investors on how to profit from the coming market in water. (See

In many developing countries, drinkable water is already extremely scarce, and environmental justice demands that affluent nations like the U.S. attend to the needs of the arid poor.

The good news is, as unregulated fracking—extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing—moves forward, many communities across the U.S. are finding their water supplies undrinkable. Pretty soon we may not have to worry about the Third World’s water problems—our own will be just as bad, and justice will be served.

Our use of water is much greater than that of people in the Third World. Can you imagine an American family of four hauling nine buckets of water a day from a well a quarter mile away and making it do for cooking, drinking, and washing? I once spent three days in a village in the desert of Rajasthan, India, where I watched a family do just that, but there were eight of us in the house, including me, using that precious water. I was not allowed to help fetch water—because of the danger of wild dogs, they said.

To personal use, add the water required by agriculture, industry, and energy production, and you have a system that gobbles up vast quantities of fresh water. Fracking itself uses millions of gallons of water at a shot, injected into the ground at high pressure, along with chemicals and sand, to break up gas-trapping shale deep below the surface. Once the water is polluted with chemicals, it is sequestered below the water table to keep it out of the groundwater. Some of it returns to the surface along with the natural gas and has to be trucked to disposal sites. Either way, millions of gallons are being withdrawn from our water systems, while some of it is escaping into community water supplies and making water undrinkable.

Residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, are getting dizzy from taking showers. In the documentary film Gasland, people are shown lighting their water on fire as it comes out of the tap.

Josh Fox, director of Gasland, traveled to Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and New Mexico, looking for towns where fracking was well-regulated, landowners were happily living off the leasing fees paid by drilling companies, and the water was still clean. He did not find any such community.

The New York State legislature is currently grappling with whether to allow fracking in the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale, which underlines much of the state, including the Catskills, source of New York City drinking water. The city is opposed to fracking in the state, but forces in favor of it include the politically powerful gas companies, landowners hoping to get rich from leasing fees, and the country’s need for energy supplies.

For more information and ways to take action, see


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