A wave of bankruptcies and environmental problems has darkened the once-bright promise of fracking — and bolstered the Arizona Senate campaign of Felicia French.

French is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination to face off against the winner of the bare-knuckle Republican fight between incumbent Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) and challenger Wendy Rogers.

Allen is a longtime state lawmaker from a pioneering White Mountains family who heads the senate education committee and has championed charter schools and aid for private schools. Rogers is a former fighter pilot and frequent congressional candidate who has raised huge sums from outside the district, mostly with a scathing attack on Democrats, outspoken support for President Trump and blasts at Allen for not being conservative enough, even though Allen ranks as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the state senate.

Retired Army Colonel French — a former Army medivac helicopter pilot and nurse, has a degree in sustainability from Northern Arizona University. She has criticized the lack of oversight of some 80 fracking permits in the Holbrook Basin, just outside Petrified Forest National Monument.

She has also criticized the current administration’s green-light for additional mining operations for uranium, including potential sites on watersheds that drain into the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.

A rash of fracking projects nationally for a time resulted in a glut of oil and natural gas, which led to a sustained drop in oil prices and a drive to replace many coal-fired power plants with natural gas power plants. The rush to open fracking operations has made the U.S. the biggest oil and natural gas producer in the world.

However, several recent developments have cast a long shadow across the financial and environment consequences of the fracking boom.

For starters, studies have shown that most fracking operations leak large quantities of methane into the atmosphere as a waste gas. The administration rolled back regulations that would have required fracking operations to capture most of this waste gas. Methane has proved about 80 times as potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, making the waste gas from fracking wells a significant contributor to global warming.

Infrared studies have shown about 4% of the gas from fracking operations escapes into the atmosphere, about double the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates, according to the research by Harvard climate expert Yuzhong Zhang, based on monitoring of wells in the Permian Basin in Texas.

The methane leaking from those wells alone could warm up the atmosphere as much as the carbon dioxide released by heating all the homes in the U.S. each year, the study concluded.

Moreover, plunging oil and gas prices nationally have forced a wave of bankruptcies in the fracking industry. Many of those bankrupt firms have paid executives millions of dollars, while abandoning their methane-spewing wells, according to an investigation published last week in the New York Times.

Saudi Arabia and Russian had been working in tandem to drive down oil prices to drive under competing U.S. fracking operations, many relying on borrowed money to create new infrastructure. This means it costs them more to produce a barrel of oil than the established oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Russia. The breakdown in the joint effort by Saudi Arabia and Russia came just as the pandemic slashed global energy use. As a result, oil and gas prices collapsed and fracking firms toppled in a domino chain of bankruptcies.

The New York Times reported that many of those firms gave top executives multi-million-dollar payments before declaring bankruptcy. The bankruptcies have left unpaid billions of dollars in cleanup costs, including many wells still leaking methane. It costs an estimated $300,000 to properly shut down and seal a fracking well. Fracking relies on the injection of pressurized fluids into wells that are thousands of feet deep. The pressurized fluids drive oil and gas to the surface. Previous studies have shown the process can consume a large amount of groundwater and pose the risk of pollution of underground water reserves.

The federal Bureau of Land Management is currently considering scores of fracking permits in the Holbrook Basin, which local critics fear may affect groundwater. The fracking operations would focus on recovering helium, but could pose some of the same concerns as fracking for natural gas and oil. The state and federal governments regulate fracking and groundwater pollution, but critics say they have been shuttled from one agency to another without getting clear answers.

Residents have organized No Fracking Arizona, which argues that the operations could affect groundwater, forever limiting future development in the mostly empty high desert areas near the Petrified Forest. The companies say the water they would use would come from a deep source too saturated with minerals to ever serve as drinking water. They maintain the reinjection of wastewater from the operation into rock layers thousands of feet underground would pose no risk to the public or usable groundwater.

Arizona has moved to take over regulation of the fracking injection operations from the federal government — especially with groundwater.

Several previous national studies have found only minimal impacts on groundwater from fracking operations, in part because the fracking operations generally operate far beneath the depth at which most wells tap into groundwater.

French has waded into the discussion with concerns about whether the state will fail to protect both groundwater and residents — since fracking operations can also release chemicals associated with cancer and birth defects.

“Last year, 42 U.S. fracking companies filed bankruptcy, dumping $26 billion of debt on taxpayers. As if this tax burden weren’t enough, just one well can deplete and poison 45 million gallons of water,” said Anna French, the daughter of Felicia French after the candidate hiked the 800-mile-long Arizona Trail. “In the Holbrook Basin, there are 80 chemical fracking permits. This basin sits above the Coconino Aquifer — a source for Lake Mead — which provides water for 40 million people.”

She added, “that’s why my mom is running for state Senate. She wants to tap into existing tourism opportunities and lead the nation in renewable energy — a sector that provides three times more jobs than the fossil fuel industry. Bottom line: conservation benefits far outweigh any perceived short-term profits from mining, fracking and deforestation. Protecting our water and land puts the health and economic security of Arizonans first.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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