What the frack? Even 60 Minutes and CSI are concerned about fracking

Otsego County (NY) Gas Group

What the frack?   Why is fracking suddenly of great interest to the investigative journalists of 60 Minutes and, perhaps more importantly, the fictional crime-fighters on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process for extracting natural gas from shale rock formations that uses millions of gallons of fresh water and hundreds of chemicals, some known to be toxic.  It is now taking place in 38 states across the country, poisoning drinking water supplies and creating air pollution hazards.  The oil and gas industry is making major investments in these shale rock deposits, while working in the political process to unravel environmental protections, including rules requiring public disclosure of the chemicals used.

Some have suggested that this development frenzy is a sign of progress, that natural gas in the United States’ shale formations is a treasure trove that must be tapped to help us wean ourselves from dirty coal and save us from global warming.  However, no one has proven that natural gas is any better than coal in reducing our vulnerability to global warming.  In fact, a newly-released analysis from Cornell professor Robert Howarth suggests that greenhouse gases from fracked natural gas may be worse than coal over a 20-year time horizon because of methane leakage during production and transport.

The fact that fracking is finally receiving so much scrutiny is due in no small part to filmmaker Josh Fox, whose documentary Gasland blows the whistle on the oil and gas industry’s abuses in his home state of Pennsylvania as well as in Arkansas, Wyoming and beyond.  Originally shown on HBO, it is now appearing at select theaters around the country and can be purchased as a DVD.  Pick it up, it is a must-see if you wondering whether natural gas really represents our clean energy future as some have suggested.

We can take some comfort in the fact that EPA is conducting a study of fracking’s impact on air and water quality.  But this study will not be completed until 2012, and it is not so clear when or if EPA will follow through with the regulations needed to rein in the worst abuses.  The fact that Halliburton has been resisting EPA’s requests for basic information on its fracking chemicals should give us a sense for the kind of opposition to reasonable regulation we should expect.  Gathering basic facts about which communities and which families are being harmed also will be difficult.  Witness the efforts by oil and gas companies to coerce families with drinking water contaminated by fracking not to talk to the public about their injuries.  Reportedly, they have gone so far as to deny deliveries of replacement drinking water to these families until the families agree to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Fortunately, conservationists and other concerned citizens are not awaiting EPA action and are not cowed by industry bullying tactics.  Instead they are rapidly organizing to secure better protections for their environments and economies.  A key focus is convincing Congress to remove the exemptions that the oil and gas industry has been given from environmental laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

People are mobilizing at the state level as well.  This past summer, activists in New York state won a moratorium ensuring that no further fracking will happen in the state until the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) completes its review of environment and health impacts.

A former DEC official, Pete Grannis, recently lamented how states are grappling with an onslaught of fracking applications from oil and gas companies without any real understanding of the impacts of these proposals:

I would hope they understand that it’s better to be safe than sorry and to get it right in the beginning, because the consequences later on can be dangerous, damaging and harmful to the economy.

NWF and other conservation advocates will be working to ensure that other state and federal officials adopt this precautionary approach.  Here is a way that you can help.