March 5, 2012

Is fracking safe?

What are the big problems with fracking? Fracking emerged as a statewide issue in New York State in 2008, and they have had a moratorium against it for almost 4 years. Even Chefs for the Marcellus, a group headed by Food Network star Mario Batali, has urged current Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking at the state level. Cuomo promises a decision within a few months. Or perhaps new regulations.

Since only the state can regulate the industry, six upstate New York counties have recently banned fracking through zoning changes. Now I understand why we saw so many “Anti-fracking” signs last summer on front lawns when we visited the Finger Lakes.

Environmental groups have a complicated history with natural gas. Several, particularly Sierra Club, have seen it as a bridge fuel toward renewable sources that was cleaner than coal and oil, and a preferred alternative to common mining practices.

However, some former advocates of gas see it not just as an alternative to oil and coal, but also as something crowding out renewable resources like wind and solar power. There has been a humongous increase in supply that has greatly dropped the price of natural gas. The glut of this commodity is deterring investment in renewable energy like wind, solar and tides. Nuclear power too.

In fact, a group called Frack Action started up in 2010 largely because some anti-fracking activists worried that established environmentalists seemed resigned to living with gas drilling.

But real media coverage about fracking began in the picturesque rural Pennsylvania village of Dimock, Pennsylvania, about halfway between Scranton, Pa., and Binghamton, N.Y., where at least 18 families' water wells were contaminated with methane and chemicals after fracking began in the area. By 2009, this town had become synonymous with fracking hell. The 2010 HBO documentay, Gasland, opened a lot of folks’ eyes by showing some drinking water in this town bursting into flame at the faucet. Some residents began experiencing bouts of dizziness and headaches; others developed sores after baths.
For a while, the drilling company trucked water to Dimock’s residents, but stopped when a judge declined to order the company to continue deliveries. Then the EPA even delivered water to the18 families until last November when state regulators said tap water standards were good enough for them to stop. So Sierra Club has arranged for trucks to deliver water since last December. Federal regulators are now considering retesting water supplies in Dimock.

Is fracking safe? If you Google that term, you will discover “truths” that totally contradict each other. After the documentary Gasland was released in 2010, fracking became a VERY emotional issue. The movie is clearly alarmist, but the drilling industry's own PR omits any frank acknowledgement of risks and ongoing investigations. They both have strong propaganda motives.

In addition to well-known environmental groups such as Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that are opposing the gas industry lobbyists, there are many loosely connected anti-fracking grassroots groups in the Finger Lakes region in New York alone. Only one has paid staff.

The Gasland movie painted a horrifying and emotionally charged picture of conspiracy, profiteering, environmental ruin, and the reckless poisoning of people and animals by the drilling companies. The energy industry was quick to respond to the apparent slander, even posting a web page called "Debunking Gasland" that denied virtually all of the movie's claims. Whom should the average person on the street believe?

The EPA studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress was considering whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. An early draft of the study discussed potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned “possible evidence” of contamination of an aquifer. The report’s final version excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking “poses little or no threat to drinking water.” Shortly after the study was released, an EPA. whistle-blower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure.

Gas drilling may contaminate drinking water wells, after all, a new study suggests—but with methane, not hydrofracking chemicals. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded that methane concentrations in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling sites in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York are 17 times higher, on average, than concentrations of this gas in drinking water wells in areas without any drilling,

In late 2008, drilling and coal-mine waste released during a drought so overwhelmed the Monongahela River that local officials advised people in the Pittsburgh area to drink bottled water. EPA officials described the incident in an internal memorandum as “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.” Uhe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found it would require five times the amount of water in their reservoirs to dilute the river. It took five months to clean it up.

On the other hand, Halliburton famously had an exec drink some of its fracking fluid at an industry conference.

“We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, the former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Another big OOPS. . . According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 65 Marcellus wells drilled this year have been cited for faulty cement casings, which could result in leaks. And there are about half a million fracking gas wells in the U.S. at the moment, double the number in 1990. Shale gas represented just 1 percent of American natural gas supplies in 2000. Today, it is 30 percent and rising. Drilling companies were issued roughly 3,300 Marcellus gas-well permits in Pennsylvania last year, up from just 117 in 2007. Can you say “out of control”?

In his State of the Union, Obama echoed the recommendations for safe extraction made by an advisory panel that includes a reputable Stanford geophysicist, This panel made 20 recommendations for regulatory reform to guarantee its safety. We saw what lack of regulation and oversight did during the BP spill in the Gulf.