What the Frack is Going On?

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As a follow up to the article I posted on the Keystone XL oil pipeline in Canada, I wanted to talk about a fascinating story and project I was alerted to recently.

Montana-based photographer Tony Bynum has been documenting oil drilling throughout the Blackfeet Indian Reservation area on the eastern side of Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains since 2010. High demand for fuel lead to the increased interest in producing more oil domestically and the development of an accelerated process of extracting oil called hydraulic fracturing. It is most commonly used with shale rock, due to its porous and permeable qualities.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, “[‘fracking’] involves injecting large quantities of water combined with sand and chemicals…at high pressure into the ground to expand pores and fissures thus allowing greater quantities of natural gas to flow. Although these techniques can yield increased quantities of natural gas from a drilling site, they also carry a variety of risks, including depleting water supplies, contaminating drinking water with dangerous chemicals, and causing air pollution.”

Bynum says it’s a rare opportunity to document the land and environment before and as the impact takes place. He’s not trying to prevent the drilling or take sides, just documenting the “progress” (is it progress?) and putting the information out there in hopes that it will speak for itself. The drilling has picked up momentum since the first few wells were put in place in 2010, despite resistance from local communites and national groups like the National Parks Conservation Association. Besides destorying the surrounding land and polluting the environment, the fracking process can also lead to radioactive contamination and possible oil spills.

Most recently, plans to drill in the Red Blanket Butte area of the Blackfeet Reservation by the Anschutz oil company were put on hold due to protests from the tribal community claiming that the ridge is a sacred burial ground. This is just one of many examples of the social and environmental impacts that the drilling could have. According to Bynum, “Native American cultures, small towns, sensitive and endangered wildlife, open and un-tattered ecosystems are part of this complex puzzle and being altered at alarming rates.”

Bynum’s project includes photography and videos to track the development of drilling sites using a cool interactive map. His goal is to educate the public about what’s happening in Montana and to create a digital archive so that future generations can learn from how the region was impacted by this issue.

In New York, there’s been a battle in the state Supreme Court over a town government’s ban on fracking near Ithaca, NY. The same oil company drilling in Montana is going after the Marcellus Shale region of upstate New York that extends down through the Appalachian Mountains into Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. There’s been several cases in Pennsylvania of drilling gone awry that resulted in polluted drinking water and oil spills. Many New Yorkers fear the same results, particularly in the Catskill Mountains where hundreds of billions of gallons of New York City’s pristine drinking water comes from. As of now, the state has put a moratorium on fracking until the environmental and health impacts can be assessed.

I grew up just north of where the Marcellus Shale region begins and where the fight in New York has taken center stage. Proponents see the drilling as a way to sustain the agricultural industry in the state because the extra income could help boost farmers’ financial security. Those opposed see it as an environmental disaster waiting to happen. I’ve become paticularly invested in this issue because it hits so close to home (literally) – so stay tuned for more to come!

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