Over 50% of land in the United States is dedicated to agriculture. Oil and gas development, particularly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is taking place near many of these farms.
Farms feed us, and unfortunately they are not protected from the impacts of fracking. Even if drilling can be done responsibly, accidents happen. In Colorado, for example, two spills occur on average per day, 15% of which result in water contamination.  Risking our food supply is not only a risk to our health – it’s a risk to national security.
Domestic oil and gas production has been promoted by the industry as a means to provide the U.S. with energy independence. The argument goes something like this: “We need to be a net exporter of energy so as to reduce our reliance on foreign countries for these resources, especially countries in the Middle East.” This ignores the point that for energy security we might want to keep rather than export fossil fuels.
However, energy independence and food independence are inextricably linked.
Considering that the basic human needs are clean water, food, shelter, and safety — along with energy — we need to think about self-reliance; we can’t be dependent on foreign countries for our food. The U.S. is currently a net exporter of agricultural products, and California produces 50% of the food consumed in the U.S. But what would happen if our foodsheds became contaminated?
Drilling Proximity – Why the concern?
Over 58% of US agricultural market value and 74% of US farms – both conventional and organic – operate within shale basins, active shale plays, and the primary frac sand geologies.
Why is this so important? Why be concerned? Here are just a few reasons:
- People can be exposed to the compounds involved with oil and gas extraction through spills, emissions, and other processes. The top five health impacts associated with these chemicals are: respiratory, nervous system, birth defects, and reproductive problems, blood disorders, and cancer.
- Rural gas gathering pipelines are unregulated; operators have no obligation to publicly report about incremental failures along the pipeline that may contaminate soil and water as long as they don’t require evacuations.
- Oil and gas operators are exempt from certain provisions of several environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. These exemptions, in a way, permit oil and gas operators to contaminate water supplies with chemicals from their operations, in particular hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced wastewater.
- The gold standard of clean, chemical-free food is the USDA National Organic Program Standards, as governed by the Organic Foods Production Act. Unfortunately, organic certification does not require testing for oil and gas chemicals in water being used in organic production. The organic standard is satisfied as long as state, water, and food safety agencies deem the water safe. To our knowledge these agencies do not test for oil and gas chemicals.
- Based on available data spills occur regularly. Recent research has identified that the mixture of chemicals from fracking fluid and produced wastewater interact in a way that can lead to soil accumulation of these chemicals. Potentially, then, the chemicals may be absorbed by plants. Fifteen chemicals often used in fracking have been identified as toxic, persistent and fast-traveling. Some farms – such as those in Southern California – are being irrigated with produced water from oil and gas operations. Additionally, every single farm in the San Jaoquin Valley is within eight miles of oil and gas operations.
- There is significant Competition for water between natural gas production and agriculture. This includes growing commodity crops for energy, such as ethanol. Natural gas operations result in removing water quantity available for agriculture, and changing the water quality, which affects the agricultural product. In drought stricken areas, water scarcity is already an issue. In addition, extreme heat as a result of climate change is putting more stress on farmers operating in already depleted watersheds. Layered on all of this is the growing realization that precipitation regimes are gradually – and in many places dramatically – transitioning from many smaller and more predictable events to fewer, more intense, and less predictable rain and snow events which is are harder for the landscape to capture, process, and store for agricultural and/or other uses.
- Operating costs: Farmers are already operating under razor- thin margins, with the cost of inputs continually increasing and the resilience of the soils and watersheds they rely upon coming into question with unconventional oil and gas’ expansion across the Midwest and Great Plains.
Over 45% of lands in the Western United States are owned by the federal government. Opening up public lands—by the Bureau of Land Management, United State Forest Service in particular—is controversial on multiple levels. As it relates to food security and independence, the issue often missed is that many headwaters to prime farmland reside on federal lands, along with the majority of cattle grazing.
There isn’t enough private land in the West for oil and gas operators to reach their production goals. They have to drill on public lands in order to scale up production and develop an export market for domestic natural gas. This means that public lands, taxpayer funded public lands, could potentially be used to irreparably harm prime agricultural and grazing lands (foodsheds). More alarming, is that the Trump Administration is focused on unfettered development, extraction and distribution of natural gas resources, including opening up public lands to oil and gas leasing and gutting regulations that protect us from pollution and public health risks.
The map we have developed shows that many of the largest farms in the West are surrounded by public lands. Sixty-percent of Colorado farms are surrounded by public lands, which are within shale basins or active shale plays. Four of the top natural gas producing counties in Colorado are also four of the top agricultural producing counties: Weld, Mesa, Montezuma, and LaPlata counties. The third, fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth agricultural producing counties in the State are surrounded by public lands within shale basins, respectively,: Larimer, Delta, El Paso, Montrose and Douglas counties. The 6,325 farms in these counties represent 17% of all Colorado farms, and 29% (nearly half) of Colorado at-risk farms for being surrounded by public lands and within shale basins.
These farms, headwaters, and public lands need to be protected if we are to maintain food independence and security. Producing potentially contaminated food is neither food independence, nor food security.
Why should policy makers and health insurers care? Chronic and terminal illnesses are on the rise. Healthcare costs have nowhere to go but up as long as the environment we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe continue to be polluted at such a large scale. Attempts to reduce healthcare costs by insuring all Americans will have no impact if they are all sick. The insurance model only works when there are more healthy people in the pool than unhealthy people.
Mapping Conventional & Organic U.S. Farms
Below is an interactive map showing agricultural production in the U.S. You can use the map to zoom in at the county level to understand better the type of agricultural production taking place, as well as the value of the agricultural products at the county level.
U.S. Conventional and Organic Farms and Their Productivity Near Shale Plays and Basins
This map excludes Alaska for a variety of reasons. We include over 180 unique data points for each county across five categories: 1) Crops and Plants, 2) Economics, 3) Farms, 4) Livestock and Animals, and 5) Operators. We then break these major categories into 20 subcategories.
Table 1. Subcategories Utilized in the “US Shale Plays and Basins Along with Agricultural Productivity By County” map above
|Crops and Plants
|Field Crops Harvested
|Fruits, Tree Nuts, Berries, Nursery and Greenhouse
|Hay and Forage Crops Harvested
|Seed Crops Harvested
|Vegetables and Melons Harvested
|Buildings, Machinery and Equipment on Operation
|Farm Production Expenses
|Farm-Related Income and Direct Sales
|Farms by Value of Sales
|Market Value of Agricultural Products Sold
|Agricultural Chemicals Used
|Farms by Size
|Farms by Type of Organization
|Land in Farms and Land Use
|Livestock and Animals
|Livestock, Poultry, and Other Animals
|Characteristics of Farm Operators
|Hired Farm Labor
|Primary Occupation of Operator
|Tenure of Farm Operators and Farm Operations
In total, there are 589,922 and 1,369,961 farms in US Shale Plays and Basins, respectively, averaging between 589 and 646 acres in size and spread across 2,146 counties (Figure 1). These farm counties produce roughly $87.31- 218.32 billion in agricultural products each year with the highest value per-acre being the Monterey and Monterey-Temblor Formations of Southern California, the Niobrara Formation in North Central Colorado, Eastern Barnett in North Central Texas, the Antrim in Michigan, and the Northern Appalachian Shale Basins of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio (Figures 2a/2b). Roughly 52% of all agricultural revenue generated in US Shale Play counties comes from livestock, poultry, and derivative products vs. a national average of 44% (Figure 3).
Put another way, the value of US Shale Basin agricultural infrastructure would rank as the 9th largest economy worldwide, between Italy and Brazil.
Family-owned farms are at the greatest risk. While corporations tend to own larger acreage farms, only 8.2% of US farms are owned by corporations. This figure is nearly halved in US Shale Plays, with 4.5% of farms owned by corporations, or 95% owned by families or individuals.
Figures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 above show the number of farms near drilling, as well as variations in the value of agricultural products produced in those regions.
Risk vs. Benefits in CO
Oil and gas activity is regulated on a somewhat patchwork basis, but generally it is overseen at the state level subject to federal laws. New York and Maryland are the only two states that ban fracking, while communities around the country have invoked zoning laws to ban fracking or impose moratoriums on a smaller scale. However, in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over oil and gas regulation in the State. There, fracking bans imposed by local communities, with a large number of farms, have been found to be unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Weld County is Colorado’s leading producer of cattle, grain, and sugar beets. Weld is the richest agricultural county in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, the fourth richest overall nationally, and the largest natural gas producer in CO. Compare this to the North Fork Valley on the Western Slope of CO, which is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state, one of two viticultural (wine making) areas in the state, and has a reputation for being a farm-to-table hub. Delta County, in which the North Fork Valley is located, is known for its sustainable agriculture initiatives. Uniquely, Delta County is one of the few agricultural areas in the country so far untouched by the fracking boom – but that could all change. The Bureau of Land Management is considering opening 95% of BLM lands and minerals within and surrounding Delta County to oil and gas leasing.
Protecting Food Supplies
Oil and gas extraction is taking place on both private and public lands across the country. Prime and unique agricultural lands need to be protected from these industrial activities if we are to maintain food independence and ensure a healthy food supply. As demonstrated by the map above, agricultural communities in active shale plays may already in trouble. To prevent further damages on day-to-day food staples, it is imperative to increase awareness about this consequential issue.
How can people trust that the food they eat is safe to consume? Families trust farmers, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that the food supply chain is regulated and maintained. If most of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water/soil is not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, that supply chain is at risk. The secure production of our food – via clean air, water, and soil – is tantamount to lasting food independence.
I am the leader of Slow Food Western Slope, which functions as a chapter of Slow Food USA. We envision a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet: good, clean and fair food for all. Our chapter promotes and supports over 70 farmers, orchardists, ranchers, agricultural businesses and winemakers of the North Fork Valley – all of which depend on good and clean water, air and soil. With its industrial footprint and potential damage to landscape, air, water, soil and human health, extraction industries have no place in the future of the North Fork Valley. We can build a new economy around clean food, outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyle and small nonthreatening businesses.
Agricultural land is much more valuable in the long-run than the short-term gains promised from oil and gas extraction… As farmers we are attuned to crop, soil, and water conditions especially as a result of weather. If it’s too hot, too dry, too wet, too cold then there is no food. Natural gas extraction is an undeniable factor in changing climate and is incompatible with the practice of sustainable agriculture.
References and More Information
FracTracker Alliance raised awareness of this issue in 2015 when it mapped the proximity of organic farms to oil and gas wells. In that mapping analysis, it was discovered that 11% of organic farms are within ½ mile of oil and gas development. Did you know that less than 1% of agricultural lands in the United States are used to grow crops without chemicals, and that 42% of those organic farms produce food for human consumption?
Organic Farms Near Drilling Activity in the U.S.
This research prompted the question of what about the other 99% of agricultural lands used to grow crops and raise livestock utilizing chemicals and other conventional methods in the United States. The majority of dairy, grains, beef, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and animal feed for livestock are produced on conventional farms. Where are they located, and do we know how they are being impacted by oil and gas development?
The majority of the US population lives in urban centers and is disconnected from the American farm, including how and where food is produced. People trust their farmer, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that they trust their supply chain, and to the extent that the farmers trust their water supply and soils. If the majority of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water and soil are not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, this research questions how people can trust that their food is safe to consume. If we are to maintain our food independence and health, not only do consumers need to understand that the food supply is at risk in order to exercise their rights to protect it at the local, state, and federal levels, but policymakers need to be informed with this data to make better decisions around oil and gas development regulations and development proposals that impact our foodsheds.
- 2015 Colorado Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker, Center for Western Priorities
- COMPENDIUM OF SCIENTIFIC, MEDICAL, AND MEDIA FINDINGS DEMONSTRATING RISKS AND HARMS OF FRACKING (UNCONVENTIONAL GAS AND OIL EXTRACTION), Fourth Edition, Physicians for Social Responsibility, November 17, 2016; Colborn T, Kwiatkowski C, Schultz K, Bachran M., Natural gas operations from a public health perspective, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2011 17(5):1039-1056; Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities, NRDC Issue Brief, December 2014
- 49 CFR §192
- Brady, William J., Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation in the United States: The Laissez-Faire Approach of the Federal Government and Varying State Regulations, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 14 2012
- National Organic Program Standards, 7 CFR Part 205. Organic Foods Production Act, 7 U.S.C. Ch. 94
- Molly C. McLaughlin, Thomas Borch,, and Jens Blotevogel, Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-contaminant Interactions, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50, 6071−6078
- AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, November 2016.
- Matthew Heberger and Kristina Donnelly, OIL, FOOD, AND WATER: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture, Pacific Institute, December 2015.
- Issues with Alaskan agricultural data include incomplete reporting and large degrees of uncertainty in the data relative to the Lower 48.