In the musical “Urinetown,” a severe drought leaves the dwindling supplies of clean water in the hands of a corporation called Urine Good Company. Urine Good Company makes a fortune selling the precious commodity and running public toilets. It pays off politicians to ward off regulation and inspection. It uses the mechanisms of state control to repress an increasingly desperate and impoverished population.
The musical satire may turn out to be a prescient vision of the future. Corporations in Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and upstate New York have launched a massive program to extract natural gas through a process that could, if it goes wrong, degrade the Delaware River watershed and the fresh water supplies that feed upstate communities, including the metropolitan cities of New York, Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, and many others on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.
“The potential environmental consequences are extreme,” says Fritz Mayer, editor of The River Reporter in Narrowsburg, N.Y. His paper has been following the drilling in the Upper Delaware River Valley and he told me, “It could ruin the drinking supply for 8 million people in New York City.”
Trillions of cubic feet of natural gas are locked under the Marcellus Shale that runs from West Virginia, through Ohio, across most of Pennsylvania and into the Southern Tier of New York state.
There are other, small plates of shale, in the south and west of the United States. It takes an estimated 3 million to 5 million gallons of water per well to drill down to the natural gas in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The water is mixed with resin-coated sand and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, biocides, surfactants, friction reducers and benzene to facilitate the fracturing of the shale to extract the gas.