by Susan Goldenberg
Veronica Kronvall can, even now, remember how excited she felt about buying her house in 2007. It was the first home she had ever owned and, to celebrate, her aunt fitted out the kitchen in Kronvall's favourite colour, purple: everything from microwave to mixing bowls. A cousin took pictures of her lying on the floor of the room that would become her bedroom. She planted roses and told herself she would learn how to garden.
What Kronvall did not imagine at the time – even here in north Texas, the pumping heart of the oil and gas industry – was that four years later anenergy company would drill five wells behind her home. The closest two are within 300ft of her tiny patch of garden, and their green pipes and tanks loom over the fence. As the drilling began, Kronvall, 52, began having nosebleeds, nausea and headaches. Her home lost nearly a quarter of its value and some of her neighbours went into foreclosure. "It turned a peaceful little life into a bit of a nightmare," she says.
Energy analysts in the US have been as surprised as Kronvall at how fast fracking has proliferated. Until five years ago, America's oil and gas production had been in steady decline as reservoirs of conventional sources dried up. Then a Texas driller, George Mitchell, began trying out new technologies on the Barnett Shale, the geological formation that lies under the city of Fort Worth, Texas, and the smaller towns to the north, where Kronvall lives. Mitchell did not invent the technique. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was first used in the 1940s to get the gas out of conventional wells. As the well shaft descended into the layer of shale, the driller would blast 2m-4m gallons of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals down the shaft at high pressure, creating thousands of tiny cracks in the rock to free the gas.
Mitchell's innovation was to combine the technology with directional drilling, turning a downward drill bit at a 90-degree angle to drill parallel to the ground for thousands of feet. It took him more than 15 years of drilling holes all over the Barnett Shale to come up with the right mix of water and chemicals, but eventually he found a way to make it commercially viable to get at the methane in the tightly bound layers of shale. The new technology has turned the Barnett Shale into the largest producible reserve of onshore natural gas in the US. Other operators, borrowing from Mitchell's work, began drilling in Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, most recently, California. More than 15 million Americans now live within a mile of an oil or gas well, 6 million of them in Texas.
The industry has been quick to publicise fracking's apparent benefits. Electricity and heating costs have dropped. The activity from the oil and gas sector has helped buoy up an ailing national economy and paid for new schools in country towns. Last October, the US produced more oil at home than it imported for the first time since 1995.
New evidence, however, has begun to emerge that fracking, while reducing coal consumption, is not significantly curtailing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Campaigners warn that fracking is binding the US even more tightly to a fossil-fuel future and deepening the risks of climate change. There have been stories from homeowners of fracking chemicals seeping into their drinking water, video footage of flames shooting out of kitchen taps because of methane leaks. Companies have been fined for releasing radioactive waste into rivers.
In north Texas, where Kronvall lives, the number of new oil and gas wells has gone up by nearly 800% since 2000. It's impossible to drive for any length of time without seeing the signs, even after the rigs have moved on elsewhere: the empty squares of flattened earth, the arrays of condensate tanks, the compressor stations and pipelines, and large open pits of waste water. Virtually no site is off limits. Energy companies have fracked wells on church property, school grounds and in gated developments. Last November, an oil company put a well on the campus of the University of North Texas in nearby Denton, right next to the tennis courts and across the road from the main sports stadium and a stand of giant wind turbines. In Texas, as in much of America, property owners do not always own the "mineral rights" – the rights to underground resources – so typically have limited say over how they are developed.
Kronvall moved from the Fort Worth area to the small farming town of Ponder – population: 1,400 – for the peace and quiet, and the affordable house prices; it also meant a fairly easy commute to her job at the survey research centre at the University of North Texas. Wesley and Beth Howard moved into the Remington Park neighbourhood in the same year, two doors down, after making a similar calculation. It was close to where Beth works as a graphic designer at Texas Woman's University. Wesley, 41, a support engineer at IBM, works from home. The neighbourhood was still only partially built, but the developers said they were planning 150 new homes, a park and walking trails on the meadow behind their house. "This was the first home we had together," Wesley says. "We looked at being here for a good couple of decades. It was our expectation and our hope that this would grow and property values would improve and services would come up."
In February 2011, Beth, 31, had just found out she was pregnant when the couple noticed some wooden stakes with fluttering bright plastic strips had gone up in the meadow behind their home.
Kronvall had seen them, too, and assumed workers were staking out cul-de-sacs for the next phase of homes. She was away at a work conference in May 2011 when she got a call from another neighbour: crews had arrived with heavy earth-moving equipment. The meadow was about to be drilled for a well.
None of the neighbours received any official notice, either from the energy company or the town authorities. "The law at the time didn't require them to tell us or give any public notice or anything," Wesley says. "They could just spring it on us as a surprise, and so they did." At that time, Texas law did not require companies to disclose which chemicals they were using to frack the well. Residents say that, to this day, none of them has any idea, though there is now a voluntary chemical disclosure registry at fracfocus.org.
The crews proceeded to flatten the earth and install a 200ft red and white drilling tower that loomed high above their homes. Convoys of articulated lorries rumbled down the main road. "It was terrible," Kronvall says. "There was a lot of banging and clanging. The number of trucks was just phenomenal, and the exhaust, the fumes in the air, it was 24/7."
She says the activities on the other side of her fence deposited a layer of white powder on her counter tops. The sound of the crew shouting into megaphones invaded her bedroom. Bright lighting pierced her curtains and made it difficult to sleep. The rumble of trucks and equipment rattled the glasses in her cupboard, and the smell – an acrid blend of chemicals – was all-pervasive.
"My wife was pregnant the whole time the rig was there," Wesley says. There was the din of diesel generators belching soot, and a nauseating mix of chemicals competing with the aroma of dinner. The noise and smells penetrated to the next street over, where Christina Mills lives. Like the Howards and Kronvall, Mills, 65, was attracted to Ponder because of its sleepiness, and bought the fourth house built in the entire development when she moved to the town in 2001. "But when that derrick was up, you would have thought you were in Las Vegas," she says, "and I live one street over."
Devon Energy Corporation, the firm drilling behind their homes, did install a sound curtain to try to buffer the noise. Devon – which bought out George Mitchell and has become one of the biggest operators in the extraction of shale gas – says it is committed to supporting residents. "We are always working to find new and better ways to do what we do with the smallest possible impact that we can have on our neighbours," says Tim Hartley, a Devon spokesman. "Wherever we are, we want to have a healthy, safe, best-in-class operation, so we are committed to that and we have delivered that in the Barnett Shale area for many years."
The curtain did little to muffle the sound or reduce the other effects of fracking, say residents. The Howards' baby, Pike, arrived several weeks early. The couple say there is no way of knowing whether that was connected to the fracking, but they were very nervous about exposing him to possible chemicals from the process. "He was in really good health, but he was still a newborn," Wesley says. "When you can smell diesel exhaust and you have got other unusual odours, and all the things you don't know about what is going on with industrial stuff, it can be stressful. We didn't know what we were breathing in at any given time, and he was breathing it, too. It was what made his homecoming so stressful."
Two doors down, Kronvall says, her eyes watered constantly when she was at home, stopping only after she had been at work for an hour or two. As well as bouts of nausea and low, throbbing headaches, there was blood when she blew her nose. "I had nosebleeds pretty much throughout the entire process," she says.
Devon says it is not aware of any complaints about health problems suffered after it began its activities at Remington Park, though company representatives attended public meetings from 2011, and were accused by residents of being dismissive of health concerns. In response, Hartley has said, "It would be inappropriate for us to publicly discuss asserted claims."