Trucks loaded with drilling equipment and industrial chemicals have begun arriving in tumbleweed towns across America to conduct the controversial oil and gas drilling method known ashydraulic fracturing. Fracking allows energy firms to tap once unreachable supplies of methane and oil beneath the Earth's surface by fissuring shale rock thousands of feet below ground with a highly pressurised elixir of water, silicon sand, and chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde. In tow with the heavy drilling machinery that is hitting the United States’ one horse towns are workingmen with an insatiable appetite for raw sex and hard drugs.
Fracking rigs have popped up in at least 17 states including California, Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Eighty-two thousand frack wells have been drilled since 2005, according to a report this month by the advocacy group Environment America. Seen in satellite images from space, parts of the Great Plains grow nearly bright as New York City with the light of drilling rigs and gas flares.
The rapid industrialisation of North America’s countryside has brought a litany of big city problems to rural America. While critics accuse frackers of fouling air, drinking water and farmland with swamp gas and carcinogens; prostitution, methamphetamine and sexual crime have stalked drilling operations.
“There's like 80 guys for every woman,” said an industry veteran who has watched a rising sprawl of trailer parks, dive bars and strip clubs consume the North Dakota prairie in recent years. “A friend of mine brought his wife here with him. If he turns his back on her at Walmart, there are guys talking to her when he returns.”
To fill the gap in available housing for a surging transient workforce, company-housing units – known as “man camps” – have sprung up on the outskirts of once meager population centers. It's work hard, play hard. You are 7.6 times more likely to die working on an oil or gas rig than in any other industry, so it's understandable that when payday comes, these guys want to burn off steam. Unfortunately for many small towns around the country, a fracking worker's idea of fun can be a bit debauched.
“Hookers go for $300 a pop,” said the oil worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But if you see a woman in a store or on the street, they get nervous when you simply say 'howdy'. Some go into panic mode because of the crude guys around here. ”
Critics of fracking have compared it to raping the Earth, but where drilling has spread literal rape has followed. Violence against women in fracking boomtowns in North Dakota and Montana has increased so sharply that the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced in June that it plans to spend half a million dollars investigating the correlation. In soliciting grants from researchers the DoJ speculated that “oil industry camps may be impacting domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in the direct and surrounding communities in which they reside.”
A separate study from the environmental group Food and Water Watch (FWW) released in September notes that cases of gonorrhea and Chlamydia have gone up too, increasing 32.4 percent in heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania. The study collects statistical data from five years before and five years after congress changed the Safe Drinking Water Act to exempt frackers from disclosing the chemicals used in the drilling process – spawning America's fracking boom. FWW also draws on press reports from around the country that point to the pervasiveness of the trend.
“We've found that fracking brought a host of social costs to communities where drilling has begun,” said FWW's Program Director Emily Wurth. “These are the real costs of fracking that are never discussed.”
Along with sexually transmitted diseases the study documents a spike in automobile crashes – up by 7.2 percent in Pennsylvania counties where fracking is widespread, while decreasing by 12.4 percent in non-fracked regions. The state is hardly unique.
“Most of the guys drive company trucks over 100 MPH to and from work,” said the John Doe oil worker, describing his North Dakota commute, “passing crude oil tankers each way.”
The use of meth is also on the rise in fracking boom areas. In rural Colorado, where well pads have risen like pustules upon the jagged landscape, crimes tied to the narcotic have skyrocketed to double the national average.
Curtis Hakgen a long-time drill worker from Oklahoma, who recently retired, said that 95 percent of the men he's worked with chug coffee and energy drinks to stay awake. When he described the job, it was easy for me to understand why some turn to crank.
“On a rig, they used to work three crews of five men,” said Curtis. “You would have an eight hour shift. Now, they're working two crews of five men over 12 hour shifts. It's unsafe. We loose a lot guys when they are driving home. They fall asleep at the wheel.” As new rigs are being manufactured by the hundreds to fill the demands of the energy boom, inexperienced workers are being promoted much quicker, leading to an increase in onsite accidents, as well.
Curtis, however, takes issue with environmental groups like Food and Water Watch. He accuses paranoid environmentalists (who he believes are covertly funded by competing coal interests) of portraying energy workers as diseased rapists and drug fiends in order to keep America from tapping its natural resources.
FWW's Program Director Emily Wurth insisted that's not the case. The group simply wants “local decision makers” to consider the impact of fracking before they welcome drilling companies into their communities.
“We need to decrease our energy demand and to aggressively deploy renewable energy programs,” she said. Adding, that there is room for energy workers to join in common cause with environmentalists in fighting for greener, safer forms of employment since their working conditions are everyone's environmental conditions.
The 2010 explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig is a perfect example. Like fracking, offshore drilling exemplifies the extreme lengths energy companies are willing to go to capture remote sources of fossil fuel. Eleven workers died and 4.9 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico during the disaster. A federal commission later concluded that a lack of regulatory oversight and corners cut by BP and its partners – TransOcean and Halliburton – led to the blowout, but little in the way of reform has emerged since.
Meanwhile fracking operations continue to expand, doing underground what the BP spill did underwater. According to Environment America's numbers, in the last eight years fracking has generated 280 billion gallons of waste water, damaged 360,000 acres of land, released 450,000 tons of air pollution a year, and added about 100 million metric tons of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
Fissures left by oil and gas drillers within the Earth have not only unleashed vice, violence and environmental ruination, but now a growing body of evidence suggests that they are also triggering earthquakes. Perhaps the tremors – along with the global uptick in floods, draughts and famine attributed to climate change – are a message that we best leave the liquefied remains of dinosaurs buried.
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