The Fracking Fuss
What it’s about—and why you should care
by Sheryl Eisenberg
Fracking is all over the news these days, but what exactly is it?
A.A harmless way to get natural gas out of the ground.
B.A fictional euphemism in a TV series for, well, you know what.
C.The answer to global warming.
D.None of the above.
If you answered B, you really know your popular culture. It was, indeed, an expletive used in Battlestar Galactica, as my business partner keeps reminding me. She can’t help laughing every time I say the word.
But fracking in the sense of hydraulic fracturing, for which it has become shorthand, is no joke. This inadequately regulated method for extracting gas from rock can poison drinking water, pollute the air and put human health at risk. It also destroys entire landscapes.
In the oil and gas industry, it is all the rage.
What’s the attraction? A new form of fracking (horizontal hydraulic fracturing), using deep L-shaped wells, lets gas drillers get at large deposits that were previously inaccessible, giving the companies a new lease on life. Where a short while ago they were facing dwindling gas reserves and questions about the future of their business, now they see a hundred-year inventory within their grasp.
Key to that inventory is the Marcellus Shale, a huge gas repository that runs along the Appalachians through West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The big fight over fracking is centered here because the New York City watershed and Delaware River Basin stand to be affected. This water supply serves over 15 million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia, Trenton and other areas.
I live in New York City, love my great-tasting tap water and prize the wild and beautiful lands from which it flows, just a couple of hours north of here. So I take this particular environmental issue very personally.
But it’s not just a New York or East Coast issue. Fracking is happening around the country with ill effects for the people who live there and a rising sense, even in pro-drilling states like Texas, that better regulation is needed.
Current regulation is pathetic due to exemptions secured by the gas drilling industry from many major federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. As a result, gas drilling companies can disregard requirements that other industries have to follow. Among other things, in most places they do not have to identify the toxic chemicals they use in their operations, despite the risks those chemicals pose to drinking water.
The industry claims its chemical cocktails must be kept confidential because they’re trade secrets. Maybe so, but gas companies seem more concerned about keeping their chemical formulas secret from the public—and the Environmental Protection Agency—than each other. Now, what purpose does that serve other than to block efforts by the EPA to trace drinking water contaminants back to the companies that used them?
Even when ordered to investigate the environmental impacts of fracking by Congress, the EPA is hobbled by industry and political pressure to narrow the scope of the investigation, as recently documented by The New York Times.
With the federal government’s role limited, it has been largely left to the states to regulate gas drilling, which they are woefully unequipped to do, given their low staffing levels. Further, the agencies responsible for regulation are typically also responsible for promoting use of natural resources in the state and are often overly cozy with the companies they are supposed to regulate. You may remember this problem from the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico when the Minerals Management Service came under scrutiny for bungling its job.
Meanwhile, the gas industry is feeding us a storyline about how beneficial natural gas is, calling it a bridge to a clean energy future that will help us solve global warming. Not so fast. The rosy numbers underlying this claim tell only part of the story. When greenhouse gas emissions from the full gas production lifecycle are taken into account, the picture looks very different. According to a new analysis by the EPA, gas may be just 25 percent cleaner than coal—or less.
Gas companies aren’t pushing fracking because it’s beneficial—or even safe—for the environment. They’re pushing it to make money—and why not? That’s what they’re in business for. But for that very reason, they can’t be allowed to police themselves. It’s a job that only government can do, and we, the public, need to insist on it before it’s too late.
Please follow this issue as it unfolds on the NRDC Switchboard, support a comprehensive investigation by the EPA into the environmental impacts of fracking, and if you live in New York State, take action to save our drinking water.