Fracking: How to Destroy the Earth, Make Millions

(Adds detail on number of wells in one Pennsylvania county.)

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You can practically see people sneering when the market rejoices on news that makes non-investors cringe -- layoffs, stock buybacks instead of hiring, and other "enhancing shareholder value" stuff that takes a toll on the rest of society. It's one of the reasons why "Wall Street," as a kind of generic concept, has become a dirty word for so many people.

There have to be limits, some kind of internal, moral restrictions on where we place our money. Now before you scoff, think about it. Would you have invested in I.G. Farben, a "job creator" that would have warmed the cockles of Republican hearts, had its blood-stained shares been available to American investors while it was building shareholder value at Auschwitz? Of course not. Or, at least, I hope of course not.

That brings me to today's subject, which is hydrofracking, aka fracking. Specifically, fracking to extract supposedly enormous untapped natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale beneath unspoiled rural vastnesses of Pennsylvania and upstate New York, with its reservoirs, streams, rivers, farms and forest beauty. Thousands of wells, creating millions of tons of toxic sludge, emitting mini-Chernobyls of radiation, and showering its blessings upon the populace in the form of water dripping from faucets that can be set on fire. In Bradford County, Pa., there are 600 wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale, and the countryside looks like it's sprouting pimples.

All the dangers of hydrofracking are out there, the subject of a terrific Oscar-nominated documentary called Gasland, and the subject of outstanding reporting by Ian Urbina of the New York Times and Abrahm Lustgarden of ProPublica.

Need I tell you what a terrific thing it would be, from a Wall Street perspective, to rape our forests, fields and water supplies in this fashion? It's already under way, by golly, and you can bet that shareholders, investors, mutual fund managers and traders everywhere are letting out whoops of joy. It's our generation's I.G. Farben, folks. And, boy, is it making the market excited. And politicians too.

In Pennsylvania and upstate New York, companies like Chesapeake Energy ( CHK), Exxon Mobil ( XOM) and ConocoPhillips ( COP) are pouring money into local campaign coffers to protect their constitutionally mandated right to despoil the environment. They've made Albany, never exactly a model of good government, a one-way cash-intake machine for their payola.

Who benefits? Why, the shareholders, that's who! Just take a look at the spectacular share performance of Carbo Ceramics ( CRR), a Big Board-traded company that manufactures ceramic proppants used in fracking. That makes it about as close to a hydrofracking pure play as you can find, and its stock has performed phenomenally. With a market cap exceeding $3 billion, the company's shares are off their midsummer highs, but have soared 271% -- or almost fourfold -- over the past five years.

"Proppant" is an industry term for sand-like particles that are mixed with fracking fluid -- a kind of toxic cocktail -- to hold fractures open after the fracking process has begun. Unlike ordinary drilling, fracking creates fractures way down beneath the Earth's surface. Sort of like the kind of fractures that you see in earthquakes. As a matter of fact, fracking is believed to have caused small earthquakes in upstate New York and elsewhere.

Minor earthquakes can be lived with. Poisoning water supplies is another matter. It's firmly denied by the frackers, but pretty much everyone else believes that fracking has caused water-well contamination. In the documentary Gasland, homeowners in Dimock, Pa. -- this generation's Love Canal -- are shown setting on fire the putrid water coming out of the taps of their homes. Cabot Oil & Gas ( COG) still delivers water to the affected homeowners in Dimock, and has been since January 2009. Cabot claims the water is safe to drink, and has won state permission to cease its water deliveries at the end of this month. But the homeowners claim otherwise, and the lawsuits are flying left and right.

Gas drillers like Cabot would have a heck of a time delivering water to the eight million residents of New York City if something unpleasant ever were to happen. Big cities, unlike small towns, don't let themselves get pushed around. So in response to a request from the City of New York, whose drinking water comes from reservoirs high in the Catskill Mountains, state officials have banned fracking in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds. But under draft state regulations, fracking would still be allowed below the aging tunnels that carry the water to New York City. So the Big Apple is still not out of the woods, fracking-wise.

Sure, there's another side to this story. A number of people I respect buy the industry's argument that fracking is perfectly safe, if regulated properly, and that we need to exploit the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lying in the Marcellus Shale to shake off our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. They also point out that fracking creates jobs.

To me, all these arguments ring hollow. Yes, it creates jobs, but these are of the largely transient variety, and are not likely to result in a permanent improvement in the economy of the hard-pressed rural counties where the hydrofracking would take place. And if fracking was as safe as the oil and gas industry claims, there would be no need to prevent it from taking place in the New York City watershed. Aren't the people who live outside big cities entitled to the same safe drinking water as big-city residents? Also, much of the Marcellus Shale falls in the Delaware River basin, which supplies water to an estimated 5% of the U.S. population, including Philadelphia.

As usual where clear-cut environmental issues are concerned, the Obama administration has been mealy-mouthed on this issue. The same goes for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose stance on fracking has been equivocal. And that brings me back to the point that I raised at the beginning of this column. I'm not naive enough to expect that investors are going to "vote with their feet," and flock away from companies that contribute to the monstrosity of fracking, any more than they fled companies engaged in strip-mining, or union-busting companies like J.P. Stevens and Wal-Mart ( WMT).

But a case can be made that the fracking boom has been overblown from an investment standpoint. As fracking creeps along, cracks are forming, and not just under the Earth. The U.S. Geological Survey recently slashed its estimate of the amount of gas in the Marcellus Shale, and it's far from clear how much of the Marcellus gas can be economically extracted. Upstate New York towns are considering laws that would effectively ban gas drilling. Restrictive covenants also may come into play, preventing gas drilling on mortgaged properties.

In other words, all fracking mania may turn out to be a great big dud. Wouldn't it be funny if fracking turns out to be not another I.G. Farben, but another Enron?

Gary Weiss's forthcoming book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, will be published by St. Martin's Press on Feb. 28.

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Gary Weiss has covered Wall Street wrongdoing for almost a quarter century. His coverage of stock fraud at BusinessWeek won many awards, and included a cover story, �The Mob on Wall Street,� which exposed mob infiltration of brokerages. He uncovered the Salomon Brothers bond-trading scandal, and wrote extensively on the dangers posed by hedge funds, Internet fraud and out-of-control leverage. He was a contributing editor at Conde Nast Porfolio, writing about the people most intimately involved in the financial crisis, from Timothy Geithner to Bernard Madoff. His book "Born to Steal" (Warner Books: 2003), described the Mafia's takeover of brokerage houses in the 1990s. "Wall Street Versus America" (Portfolio: 2006) was an account of investor rip-offs. He blogs at garyweiss.blogspot.com.

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