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Hydraulic Fracturing: Making the Headlines in 2011

March 8, 2011

The issue of Hydraulic Fracturing has been quickly gaining attention this year.  A series published last week in the New York Times investigated federal regulation along with the environmental and health risks associated with the controversial practice that has opened up massive reserves of natural gas.  The Times series found that drillers have disposed of waste-water from Hydraulic Fracturing at municipal waste-water plants which are not equipped to filter for radioactive byproducts, such as radium, which have been found to greatly exceed the levels allowed for safe drinking water.

Much of the focus on Fracking, and the recent Times series, could be attributed to the Oscar nomination of Gasland , which documented the effects of natural gas drilling on local residents across the country.  This film has helped raise the profile of the issue, bringing the controversy over Hydraulic Fracturing into the homes of many people who otherwise would not have been exposed.

Of course the unexpected attention to Gasland should not overshadow the sustained efforts of grass-roots and community groups across the country who have been relentless in their determination to bring this issue into the national debate.  Local demonstrations, drawing thousands of protesters are becoming a familiar sight in states such as New York and Pennsylvania that sit atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.  Anti-Fracking protests have had measurable success.  On the local level the cities of Buffalo and Pittsburgh voted (even if largely symbolic) to ban the practice.  On the state level New York has banned high-volume Fracking through June, and on the federal level the EPA is now taking the preliminary steps for conducting a comprehensive study on the full life-cycle of hydraulic fracturing, with intentions to bring clarity on the environmental and health impacts of the practice.  (Note: Several key lawmakers have recently criticized the EPA for not investigating gas drilling waste in its study, which has been prompted by the Times investigation).

These successes are a positive development in the right direction, but for those concerned with the issue, and those directly affected, they are by no means sufficient.  Concerned citizens say that regulators and legislatures at the state and federal level have been reluctant to take the issue head on.  Resistance to new moratoriums or stricter regulations can be attributed to host of reasons, some that are not unique to the environmental movement, and others that are particular to the natural gas phenomena.

The first reason and one that has been present in many environmental struggles is that the anti-Fracking movement is going up against a very large, powerful, and unified industry.  With natural gas positioning to be a dominant part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future, the gas industry knows they are set for a financial windfall, and is using financial and political resources to stall any regulations that would place extra costs on extracting natural gas.

Another reason that lawmakers have been slow to embrace the idea of increased regulation is that natural gas offers financial assurances in a time when many states are operating under large deficits.  Lawmakers argue that natural gas brings money into depleted state coffers, creates jobs, and stimulates local economies.  The doubling of natural gas wells from 1990 to 2009 has produced a growing number of industries/businesses that have benefited from natural gas dollars.  Lawmakers also see natural gas drilling as a medium to long-term investment, especially if predictions of the vast US reserves containing enough gas to power the country for 100 years are correct.

Resistance on the state level is evident in recent actions by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett who rescinded a policy that required well operators to who wanted to drill for natural gas in state park and forest land to obtain an environmental impact assessment statement from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) before applying for a drilling permit.

One other reason and probably the most debated centers around the question now being asked: What role should natural gas play in meeting our energy needs and mitigating climate change?

Before diving into this question  it is important to note (and this is not a pitch for natural gas in any way) that the ability to access new domestic reserves of gas has only been possible in the last decade and a half due to breakthroughs in drilling technology, primarily horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing.  I just bring this up to make the connection that the question of how natural gas fits into the larger picture for reducing GHG emissions is being considered now because of the “success”  of Hydraulic Fracturing in extracting gas from deep shale formations.

To mitigate climate change effects and meet expanding energy needs clean sources of energy are needed to fill the void if fossil fuel use is reduced.  Natural gas is seen by many as a ‘bridge-fuel’ that can meet energy needs during the transition to a green economy.  Proponents argue that natural gas burns cleaner than coal, and that due to advances in drilling technology we can now access an abundant domestic supply.  President Obama is even seen to be endorsing natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper, domestically viable alternative to foreign oil and an important piece of the country’s energy future for reducing GHG emissions.

Yet, for all its benefits, natural gas should not be promoted as an ‘energy-fix’ until the issues surrounding extraction are dealt with.  It’s clear that there are serious health and environmental risks involved with the hydraulic fracturing process.  Until proper regulations and safety measures are implemented the natural gas industry should not be able to shark its responsibilities under the guise of clean and domestic energy.

And beyond regulations and safeguards over extraction, caution needs to be taken so the development of natural gas does not crowd out the development of truly renewable sources.  While natural gas does burn cleaner than coal, it is not carbon-free and it is not renewable.  It would be a mistake to find ourselves 50 years from now with dwindling gas supplies and under-developed renewable sources.

Can natural gas extraction be done in a way that does not hurt the environment or human health?  I suspect so, but until this is a reality Hydraulic Fracturing should not be allowed to continue in a way that hurts local communities’ health and environment.  The future of natural gas also needs to be seriously looked at from all sides.  While it is true that a complete switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources would be difficult without some middle-ground the development and end goal of a green economy cannot be overlooked, and our ability to reduce climate change cannot rest on the expanding use of natural gas.

What are your thoughts on Hydraulic Fracturing and the future of natural gas in our energy mix?  Can natural gas be extracted in a safer way?  And, does natural gas pose a threat to renewable energy sources?

Two bills concerning Hydraulic Fracturing were introduced in the 111th Congress.  S. 1215 was introduced by Sen. Casey (PA) and H.R. 2766 was introduced by Rep. Diane DeGette (CO-1).  Both bills would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to eliminate the Fracking exemption, thereby permitting states to adopt underground injections control programs under the Act. Ending this exemption is an essential first step to protecting groundwater and human health from the hazards of Fracking.  Ask your representatives to support re-introduction of these bills in the 112th Congress.

For more information on all aspects check out the ProPublica guide to Natural Gas Drilling.

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