State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Hydraulic Fracturing and Food Security: Can We Have Our Cake and Eat it Too?

by Kristina Gsell SEAS ’12

What the “frack” is the big fuss over high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing? You may have heard the word “frack” in the buzz lately, and may be wondering what it’s all about. The process commonly known as “hydrofracking” is a technology used for extracting natural gas (or methane) from thousands of feet underground (trapped in shale rock formations), in order to provide cheap energy to commercial and residential users.

Natural gas drilling rig in Roulette, Pennsylvania. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fracking involves drilling into the ground and injecting high-volumes of water, along with a slew of carcinogenic, radioactive, and otherwise toxic chemicals (some –because they’re proprietary–that the drilling companies refuse to disclose to the EPA or the public), simulating mini-earthquakes, which break up the rock formation in order to release pockets of the natural gas. “Every time a gas well is fracked, 4 to 9 million gallons of water are injected into the ground. A single well can be fracked up to 12 separate times, adding up to over 100 million gallons of freshwater used in the lifetime of a well.” ( There are currently tens ofthousands of wells throughout the country, mainly in rural areas with minimal regulations. There are numerous public health concerns associatied with the hydrofracking industry, namely the threat of toxic chemicals and natural gas leaking into groundwater and surface water systems, through cracking casings in wells, and from improper fracking-wastewater treatment.

In recent years, the US hydro fracking industry has expanded into a region referred to as the Marcelus Shale, an underground rock formation which stretches from New York, to Pennsylvania, all the way to Virginia. The Marcelus shale also lies under the Delaware River Basin, which provides precious drinking water to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, as well as New York City. “In the Delaware River Basin in New York and Pennsylvania, the gas industry estimates that it will use over 10 billion gallons of water over the next ten years—which they plan to withdraw from the same sources that the public depends on for drinking water.” (

Although activities in New York State have been halted for a period of “investigation,” the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), NYS DEC, along with other governing bodies are in the process of deciding if and under what regulations they will allow Fracking in NYS and the DRB.

Diagram of hyrofracking well. Source:

But what are the implications of hydraulic fracturing on agriculture and food security? In agricultural areas with widespread, ongoing hydrofracking, there have been incidences of livestock poisoning from contaminated surface water sources or grasses, and soil contamination from explosions, spills, flares, irresponsible fracking-wastewater treatment, and leaky gas pipes. The oil and gas companies claim that the methane contamination in groundwater (used for drinking and irrigation) in aquifers nearby to hydrofracking sites is naturally occuring, and cannot be attributed to their industry.

However a recent study at Duke University scientifically proves that “at least some of the homeowners who claim that their wells were contaminated by shale-gas extraction appear to be right” (Tim Lucas, Duke Today), by isolating carbon isotopes in shale methane and tracing these same isotopes in contaminated aquifers within 1 km of fracking sites. Although the study did not confirm the leaching of toxic chemicals from fracking fluid into the groundwater sites tested, this is due to the fact that these compounds are volatile and hard to detect, and not ncessarily because they aren’t there.

In addition, a large portion of fracking sites are leased from farmers who are willing to sacrifice the ecological safety of their land in order to help pay the bills or reach an early retirement, thus fragmenting and reducing the amount of available farmland in rural America. Pennsylvania agricultural agencies report that 25% of farmers receiving royalty payments discontinued farming, while another 25% converted from dairy farms to grazing operations. Agencies question whether the remaining small dairy farms provide enough of a critical mass to remain viable. Furthermore, due to the Compulsory Integration Law passed in NYS in 2005, farmers who do not wish to give up their land can be forced to if 80% of the land around that farm is leased. If local farmers call it quits, then who will grow our food?

And what will happen to the farmers who do decide to stick it out and continue farming, even as their neighbors slowly “sell-out” to the oil and gas companies? Do the organic farmers deserve to lose their certification in the name of the natural gas industry? Do the conventional farmers continue to grow and sell vegetables that may be contaminated with carcinogenic or even radioactive compounds?

Zaid Kurdieh, owner of Norwich Meadows Farms in NY and NJ, expressed his concerns at the Just Food Conference on February 25th, 2012, stating that organic farmers in the region are a minority, and that most farmers are uneducated or unconcerned about the issues associated with the fracking industry. Zaid is fearful that he will have to move his farm, which he has invested years of hard work into, if his water sources become contaminated.

Perhaps rather than displacing farms with natural gas extraction wells, the gas industry could tap into the biogenic methane sources already plentiful in cattle farms throughout the Marcellus region. Rather than letting the methane (a GHG 25 times as potent as CO2 over a 100 year period) produced by cow’s manure and flatulence escape into the atmosphere untapped, could we capture this fuel source and in a sense “have our cake and eat it too”?

The Huishan Dairy Farm in northeast China would say yes, we can, and we are. Using an anerobic digestor to break down the organic matter in their cow’s waste, the farm is able to capture methane “from 60,000 of Huishan’s 250,000 cows to produce 5.66 megawatts of power. This is enough electricity to meet the needs of 3,500 American-size households” (Rebecca Boyle, Popular Science), and many more than that number of Chinese-size households (which consume way less energy). Not to mention, the plant could also generate 619,770 tons of fertilizer and reduce carbon emissions by 180,000 tons per year. Currently, only 1 percent of American dairy operators capture methane. If the oil and gas companies invested in helping the other 99% of US dairy farms capture natural gas, rather than in the hydrofracking industry, it’s safe to say that the implications for food security, health, and sustainability in this country would be considerably more favorable.

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Bakken Oil
Bakken Oil
12 years ago

Great article, thanks. It seems as if the Marcellus is ground zero for this issue. Gas fracking seems to tend to be more distributed, and in Pennsylvania it’s in the vicinity of so much farming and human population. The part about methane capture from cows is really interesting. We’re becoming less innovative than the Chinese, which is distressing as well.