Sandra Steingraber, PhD Distinguished Scholar in Residence
Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences Ithaca College
Co-founder, Concerned Health Professionals
Co-sponsored by Albuquerque Democrats Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Representative Patricia Roybal Caballero, New Mexico State Senate Bill 149
(SB-149) would enact a four-year pause on fracking permits while the state conducted studies to determine the impacts of fracking on agriculture, environment and water resources and public health.
On February 13, 2021, the bill passed the Senate Conservation Committee on a
5-4 vote and now advances to the Judiciary Committee.
Good morning. My name is Sandra Steingraber. I am a PhD biologist and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. I’m here to testify in support of Senate Bill 149.
And I’m speaking to you today from a rumple-y strip of land between the two longest and deepest of the eleven Finger Lakes—Seneca and Cayuga. That’s where my 120-year-old house is located. Outside my window, there is a foot of snow on the ground with more in the forecast, and the last time I checked, the temperature this morning was 9 degrees.
I’m happy to report that I’m warm and toasty inside my home office although I have no furnace in my basement. I’m completely disconnected from fossil fuels, including the village gas lines, having swapped out my gas-fired boiler with air-source heat pumps.
Those pumps are, right now, pulling heat from the frigid air outside and transferring it inside my home. They are designed to do this efficiently down to negative 13 degrees, and they run on electricity which, here in New York, can be powered with solar.
This is new heating system for me, and the ongoing cold snap here feels like a stress test. So, I’m pleased to report that it works great. Moreover, my monthly utility bills are going down.
And without gas coming into my house for heating or cooking, my indoor air quality has also greatly improved. Whether indoors or outdoors, natural gas combustion creates invisible nitrogen oxides, which in turn creates ground-level ozone and smog, which is linked to asthma, heart attack, and stroke risk.
Home use of natural gas also releases the carcinogen benzene, which is linked to leukemia risk. So, my sleek new HVAC system is also healthier for me and my family.
I offer the fact of my warm, fossil-free house as a frame for our conversation today about the risks and harmsof fracking for public health and for our climate. Risks and harms look different if we know that they areavoidable and more expensive in the long run than a more innovative alternative.
I am not the only scientist making this argument. Earlier this week four dozen of the world’s top climate scientists, led by Mark Jacobson at Stanford, released a public declaration announcing that break throughs in energy innovation and especially battery storage—which have now reached grid parity and are usurping the role of gas in the power system—means that a world based on 100 percent renewables, via electrification, is possible.
More crucially, the renewable energy technology we already possess allows us to transform the global energy system fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe. Specifically, we can end carbon dioxide andmethane emissions by 2030 for electric power generation and by 2035 for all other sectors. Multiple studiesshow that 100 percent renewables will stimulate investment, create more jobs than will be lost in the fossil fuel industries, and reduce electricity bills in ways will save money for citizens and businesses alike.
That’s such good news.
In fact, this transformation is already underway. The European Union is rethinking commitments to move forward with natural projects including imports from the United States. Ireland not only banned fracking but is now cancelling plans for an LNG terminal in Shannon that would have imported fracked gas from Pennsylvania. The French have pulled the plug on a plan to import liquefied natural gas from the Texas Permian Basin. Germany is likewise reconsidering the construction of an LNG facility.
Last fall Deloitte announced that the return of invested capital of oil and gas companies was largely on par with top renewable companies, and, of course, we all saw oil majors like Exxon drop off the Dow Jones Industrial average this year.
So, with that big picture as backdrop, I’d like to explore with you what we know and don’t know about the public health and climate harms of fracking.
Here I’m speaking as both as public health biologist and also a co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York. We are a group of scientists and physicians that came together ten years ago when New York State found itself in the exact political moment that New Mexico is facing now: Should we push the pause button on fracking and use the time to investigate its risks and harms? Or not?
Our governor decided YES and then, while fracking was paused with a moratorium, he convened a panel of experts, working within our state Department of Health, to conduct a review of the evidence.
Meanwhile, a group of us scientists on the outside of our state government decided to use the time that the pause provided to do the same. That’s how Concerned Health Professionals of New York came to be.
Fast forward to 2014: within two weeks of each other, coincidentally, the governor’s team and Concerned Health Professionals released our respective reports, and we came to almost identical conclusions. Here’s how we put it:
“Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly and without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.”
And here’s how our state health department expressed it:
“It is clear from the existing literature that hydraulic fracturing has resulted in environmental impacts that are potentially adverse to public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level ofrisks to public health from fracking and whether the risks can be adequately managed, high volume hydraulic fracturing should not proceed in New York.”
It was on this basis that, to our frank surprise, Governor Cuomo simply decided to ban fracking for good in New York and aim to swiftly move our state onto renewables.
When that decision was made, in December 2014, there were about 400 studies on the risks and harms of fracking in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Now, six years later, as New Mexico deliberates about a possible pause on new drilling operations, that body of evidence has swelled to more than 2,000 studies.
In other words, New Mexico has the advantage of five times as much data to guide your decision-making as we did in New York when we were having a similar conversation.
Concerned Health Professionals of New York has kept our shop open and has continued to re- issue updated editions of our compilation of research, titled Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking. Here is the 7th edition, which we just released last December. It’s a fully referenced, peer-reviewed compilation of relevant research thatwe make available as an open-source document on our website.
Let me now share a few our relevant findings and then answer your questions. I’ll cast my net widely and stand ready to provide more details on any of the topic areas I mention.we just released last December. It’s a fully referenced, peer-reviewed compilation of relevant research that we make available as an open-source document on our website.
Let’s start with water, which is such as precious resource in New Mexico, especially as the climate crisis has exacerbated a long-standing drought so serious that it is interfering with your state’s food production.
Fracking uses prodigious amounts of freshwater as a club to smash apart the shale rock, a mile or more below our feet, where bubbles of oil or gas are trapped. And, of course, down in the Permian basin, you are mostly fracking for oil, while up in the San Juan basin, natural gas is the main quarry.
Both oil and gas represent the fossilized corpses of 400-million-year old marine organisms that fell to the bottom of ancient sea. They just have different molecular weights.
When water is used to liberate those petroleum bubbles from these ancient stone cemeteries, one of two things happen to it: some fraction of that water is forever entombed in the shale shards that it blew apart and some other fraction of that water comes flying back out of the bore hole when the pressure is released. We call second fraction flowback fluid or produced water.
The portion of the water that remains down below completely disappears from the water cycle.
Let me say that again. Fracking makes water disappear. Nothing else we do does that. Irrigation uses water. Golf courses use water. We might brush our teeth with the tap running. But those water uses don’t make water exit the hydrologic cycle. We might transfer water from underground aquifers to irrigation ditches and increase its evaporation rate, but, eventually, the water we “use” comes back down to earth as rain or snow.
Not so with fracking. So, one set of questions you might wish to answer, if you choose to hit the pause button and research this further, is this one:
How much water is New Mexico actually making disappear via fracking operations? What percent of your state’s water is lost? And what are the future projections?
Again, not all the water used for fracking is trapped deep underground forever. Another fraction of it comes flying out of the borehole after the shale is shattered and the pressure is released. That flowback waste not only contains all the chemicals that were added up at the surface to turn fresh water into fracking fluid, but it has also now picked up, on its journey to the center of the earth and back, a lot of toxic elements that are naturally found in deep geological strata. These include boron, arsenic, mercury, strontium, and of course a few radioactive ones for which New Mexico is famous. Such as uranium. Also, polonium and radon gas, which is a radioactive decay product.
The Permian Basin is known for generating lots of liquid fracking waste. In fact, the Permian produces far more liquid waste than actual oil or gas. Specifically, four to seven barrels of toxic waste are brought up to the surface of the earth for every barrel of oil extracted via fracking.
And because there are very often other hydrocarbons down in the shale, this fluid often contains toxic materials such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene.
And, finally, it’s typically very salty, having mixed with briny ancient seawater that’s still down there.
In sum, this salty wastewater is corrosive to pipes, contains a lot of toxic materials that can’t be filtered out, and often radioactive.
The question then becomes, what do you do with this wastewater? How do you permanently sequester it?
We could not solve that problem in New York. In 2014, we could not find any safe method for its disposal. Perhaps you would like to hit the pause button on new drilling and see if you can solve the problem.
Here’s the conundrum: You can’t indefinitely continue to recycle and re-use fracking waste to frack new wells because it becomes increasing briny and radioactive with every frack job. It will destroy well casings and expose workers. And there is currently no technology available that can cheaply turn liquid fracking waste into safe, drinkable water again. Fracking turns fresh water into poison. And it’s a one-way conversion.
If you dump liquid fracking waste in open pits it contributes to toxic air pollution and threatens groundwater when it leaks.
If you run it through sewage treatment plants, the dissolved solids, heavy metals, and radioactivity are not filtered out.
If you inject fracking waste back into the earth via disposal wells, the slippery chemicals that were added the fluid to reduce friction during the fracking process will lubricate naturally occurring faults and fissures in deep bedrock and can trigger earthquakes. We have absolute proof of a causal connection between underground fracking waste disposal and earthquakes.
Further, unmapped abandoned wells from years ago, locations unknown, may serve as vertical pathways to allow that fracking waste to spurt up and contaminate overlying drinking water aquifers.
Increasingly, in western states, the unsolvable problem of where to put fracking wastewater has ratcheted up political pressure to loosen regulations and allow its use to irrigate crops and water livestock.Concerned Health Professionals NY has taken a close look at the possible public health harms from consuming food that was produced with fracking waste. We don’t have good answers for you.
Can toxic materials in fracking wastewater be taken up by plant roots? Can it find its way into meat and milk?
These are unanswered questions. You may wish to use the time provided you by a fracking pause to figure this out. What I can tell you is that emerging studies show increased birth defects among livestock and horses watered with fracking waste. We summarize those studies in our Compendium.
Now let’s look at air. We find that smog and toxic air pollution follows fracking wherever it goes. There is no way to prevent mitigate this problem because it starts as soon as the drill bit goes into the ground and before the well is completed and hooked up to a pipeline. Recall that the horizontal drilling phase and the fracking phase of oil and gas extraction goes on for many weeks, and during this time the well is an open system that connects the deep shale layers to the atmosphere. A drilled well is a giant cigarette in the earth.Hydrocarbon vapors pour out of the hole, including methane, benzene, and formaldehyde.
A new study from a Harvard University team has documented the presence of airborne radioactivity in the air around fracking sites. Radioactive elements emitted by fracking wells attach themselves to ultrafine particles that can be carried in the wind and inhaled by downwind residents. These radioactive elements include polonium and represent the decay products of uranium isotopes that are liberated from the shale during fracking operations.
The Harvard team documented estimated a 40 percent increase in radiation levels in the Forth Worth, Texas area where more than 600 fracking wells are located upwind from the city.
Now let’s look at health effects. Public health problems associated with drilling and fracking include poor birth outcomes, respiratory impacts, cancer, heart disease, and mental health problems. The studies here are very consistent, especially those that look at pregnancy outcomes. Studies of mothers living near oil and gas extraction operations consistently find impairments to infant health, including higher risks for pre-term birth, low birth weight, and birth defects. In Colorado, we find higher rates of leukemia among children and young adults in areas dense with oil and gas wells.
We also know that at least 55 known or possible carcinogens are used as ingredients in fracking fluid. Of these 20 are linked to leukemia or lymphoma.
Other consistently documented adverse health indicators near fracking wells and ancillary infrastructure include rates of asthma, hospitalizations, ER visits, rashes, trauma, drug abuse, headaches, and heart failure.
Importantly, we found that these health burdens are not equally shared. Our findings clearly show that fracking is an environmental justice issue with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, rural, and impoverished white communities bearing the brunt of the exposures to toxic waste because well pads and associated infrastructure, including flare stacks, pipelines, and compressor stations, are disproportionately sited in non-white, indigenous, or low-income communities.These patterns are consistent across the nation.
As for jobs: We looked closely at jobs because employment is a social predicter of public health.
We found that job creation has been greatly exaggerated by the fracking industry. Most of these jobs are short-lived and are increasingly being lost to automation—even before the pandemic crushed oil and gas demand along with prices and triggered mass lay-offs.
We also found that these jobs are also extremely dangerous. Data on fatalities and injuries for the oil and gas industry workers are limited and disaggregated among multiple agencies, so this was difficult research..Nevertheless, the available data we found shows a workplace fatality rate four to seven times the national workplace average, with pipeline construction workers 3.6 times more likely to die on the job than workers in other industries. Injuries that are not fatal are often disabling. They include burns, explosions, head trauma, amputations, and crushing injuries.
Workers are also at high risk for toxic exposures. Benzene has been detected in the urine of well pad workers at levels high enough to cause leukemia.
We also documented social costs that have public health consequences. Studies show that fracking brings 28-46 percent increased rates of crime—from auto theft to drunk driving—but that the biggest jumps involve violent crimes that especially target women. Indeed, aggravated and sexual assaults were the crimes primarily driving this increase, with indigenous women as a special target. These crimes extend to rape, domestic violence, stalking, and sex trafficking.
I understand that New Mexico funds its public schools with a big assist the oil and gas industry. This is a tough ethical conundrum for you—the fossil fuel industry is helping prepare children for a future that the fossil fuel industry is also actively destroying via climate change. And harming children’s health in the process. A pause on new drilling may give you time to unwind this relationship and find new ways to finance early education.
The research we’ve compiled shows that in shale boom areas, school districts suffer lower test scores, lower attendance, higher teacher turn over, and exacerbated educational inequities.
A few words now about climate change. Early promoters of fracking argued that natural gas could serve as a bridge fuel on the way to renewables. Scientific evidence now disproves these claims with data show natural gas is a damaging to the climate as coal. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, escapes from all parts of the extraction and distribution system, at levels we now know are 60 percent higher than EPA estimates. Most of these emissions are not accidental leaks from fixable plumbing problems. Rather they are inherent to the design of the engineering or are a necessary part of operations, routine maintenance, or accident prevention.
Finally, the harm does not end when the oil or gas is depleted. Decommissioned wells can go on leaking methane, threatening both health and climate, and the problem gets worse as they age.
The evidence from Pennsylvania shows us that abandoned wells leak more climate-damaging methane than well currently in production. In the United States, up to three million depleted oil and gas wells no longer in production and in need of remediation. Further, most abandoned wells are not adequately bonded, leaving the full cost of plugging and remediating them to taxpayers—especially as operators declare bankruptcy.
Of course, cumulative impacts are the operative words here. The more wells your state drills, the higher the cumulative decommissioning costs. This is a train of economic consequence that is coming straight at New Mexico. I strongly urge you to adopt SB 149 and use the time it provides you to devise a fair solution to the problem of inadequate bonding of fracking wells.
Speaking as a mom, I would express it this way: clean up your old mess and figure out how to pay for it before making a new mess.