High Volume Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is creating soul searching among the landscape architects unlucky enough to have to deal with the mess caused by this destructive form of resource extraction. Fracking involves pumping chemicals and vast amount of water into shale formations underground, in order to break them open to release the natural gas found in the seams in the rock layers. Once the gas is captured, fracking fluids are then partially recovered and moved by trucks and pipelines to questionable disposal sites. Sometimes, toxic fluids have leaked into groundwater channels and aquifers, contaminating water supplies for thousands. The ecological damage can be massive and long-term.
At the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver, Darla Callaway, ASLA, Design Workshop, said on the negative side, fracking “taints water and destroys landscapes.” Once a gas company extracts what it needs, it also then “abandons the community.” On the positive side, fracking can create new jobs in deeply depressed rural areas and a new sense of community, at least while it lasts. Fracking is pitting community against community, neighbor against neighbor in Pennsylvania and other states.
The question for Callaway is whether landscape architects have an ethical obligation to involve themselves in mitigating the impacts of fracking if communities decide to move forward with it. “Can landscape architects make the communities affected more resilient?” In other words, can getting involved do any good?
The Impacts of Fracking
Kim Sorvig, a research professor at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, gave an overview of “oil and gas 101,” and the possible negative impacts of fracking.
He explained how just .007 percent of the earth’s radius — the thin biosphere that covers Earth — hosts 90 percent of its life. This thin layer we rely on is “under threat because of efforts to get at the resources underneath it.”
The problem is almost anywhere on this thin layer can be turned into a “wasteland overnight” given oil and gas companies are “exempt from land use regulations.” Under the split-estate ownership rights scheme in the U.S., “there are different owners for the surface and subsurface.” When they come into conflict, “mineral rights are dominant.” Sorvig argued that “reforming split estate is the elephant in the room.”
Oil and gas companies lease rights to drill on a property from the surface owner, paying fees and royalties. The product — the oil or gas — is then sold to the highest bidder on international energy markets. “The industry is highly dependent on global prices.” The result: local jobs can’t be considered reliable given such a variable market.
“The industry promotes jobs and economic growth, but it’s actually a boom and bust cycle that is highly chaotic and undermines the existing structure of communities.” He added, “just as a giant truck can ruin existing infrastructure, thousands of new fracking jobs can ruin the existing economic infrastructure.”
In addition, there are real environmental impacts. “The drilling process causes surface impacts that are not just cosmetic. There can be erosion, compaction, toxic pollution. Methane can be introduced into water wells. Contaminants can be introduced into the air.” In some states, Sorvig added, “it’s even legal to dump toxic fracking chemicals into open ponds,” where they will aerate and create clouds.
Some communities can regulate how fracking will occur. However, many others have no control over what matters, like the safety of the aquifer. In some places, “there’s no flexibility to protect aquifers because well spacing has a rigid format.”
Directional drilling, in which drills extend up to 7 miles sideways underground, is one way to mitigate surface impacts, by clustering wells into one area. This approach also “enables us to do site selection to avoid aquifers.” Sorvig said some industry players are doing this voluntarily. “It’s possible with planning for landscape architects to have a good impact and create a stopgap before we shift to alternative energy.”
Mitigating the Damage
Brian Orland, FASLA, Pennsylvania State University, asked whether landscape architects who try to mitigate the damage of fracking are “idealists, realists, or cadaver cosmeticians?” Pennsylvania is at the front lines of fracking. In some counties where they have banned the practice, “people feel cheated.” In others where it’s going ahead, “it’s a source of money.” However, not everyone in those towns are financially benefiting. “It’s a real social equity issue.”
When deciding whether to allow fracking or not, people face “too much information, too many hidden or moving parts.” There’s an advantage to the energy industry to “obscure the information.” In considering a ban, local leaders face “inexorable choices.” People just “don’t know what to expect.”
One issue is that communities are largely prevented from planning the minimization of impacts. This is because “the industry is exempt from environmental regulations. Zoning is absent in rural areas. Landowners are ill informed. Mineral rights dominate.”
As a result, landscape architects are ill equipped to help communities. In theory, these designers can help “contain and repair what has happened, shape what is yet to happen, or design landscapes to be more resilient to the unexpected or accidental.” Landscape architects can help communities figure out how to create any “long-term benefits.”
In fracking communities, Orland has been trying to help. “Our strategy is storytelling, exploring relationships, providing many examples of what could happen, and creating designs. We can help communities project the impacts of wells and pipelines. We can look into the future based on past impacts.” For example, a company may say a new gas pipeline will remove 8,000 acres of forest; but the reality based on past experience may be 25,000 acres of forest. “We can model the stormwater and flooding impact of that loss of forest cover.”
Orland helps communities route pipelines strategically to “minimize the number of forests, wetlands, streams, and homes impacted.” In Tioga County, Pennsylvania, Orland even helped the community “minimize the impact of visual scenic resources.” There are ways to “disguise pipelines and fracking structures.”
The Soul Searching
The questions remain for Orland, though: “Are we cadaver cosmeticians? Are we green washers? We can mitigate the impacts of a destructive industry, but we also risk the criticism of environmental groups. We can be accused of hiding the ills of fracking. Are we working for the people, industry, or landscape?”
He seem to conclude it’s better to get involved: “Communities deserve jobs but also a clean environment. Landscape architects can help communities make an informed decision.”
Sorvig provided another perspective. “You can think you are a good person who cares about the environment, but what happens when you have to work with people who are doing bad things. How do you reconcile? Will you be an environmentalist or industry hack? Everybody will criticize you. It’s brave to be in the middle. We have a responsibility to make the landscape as healthy as possible. Fracking isn’t going away.” Still, actually working on mitigating the impacts of fracking was for him, “the most painful thing in my life.”
To ban fracking in more states, there may need to be a broader political shift, which can only happen through public pressure on elected officials and regulators and direct lobbying in state capitals. Gail Schwartz, a state senator in Colorado, discussed Colorado’s regulatory approach to fracking — and the recent conflicts between the state, which allows fracking, and the local communities, who have been trying to ban the practices and have in turn been sued by the state. She said local ASLA chapters need to be more involved in lobbying. “You must have a seat at the legislative table. You need to watch every proposal and create relationships in your statehouse. The door needs to be open for you when it matters.”