In the 1960s the tobacco industry tried to counter evidence that smoking had serious health impacts by spending millions to make ludicrous claims about the benefits and safety of smoking. Today's natural gas industry is in much the same position, making claims about fracking that collapse under scrutiny. Yet because of the immense wealth and power of the energy corporations, they are generally succeeding in making very big profits while putting our people and water resources at risk through the fracking process.
The industry proponents often say, "We've been fracking wells for 60 years without any problems." However, high volume hydrofracturing, using millions of gallons of freshwater and hundreds of tons of toxic chemicals per well, is very different from the fracking of earlier decades. This new kind of fracking has only been used since 1997 and most HVHF wells are less than five years old. Fracking's many negative impacts are being green-washed by an industry spending millions to convince us that fracking is safe and to increase its profits at the expense of the environment. For example, the gas industry used its influence to lobby for the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted fracking from having to follow the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and several other major environmental laws. What has resulted from this lack of regulation are serious environmental and health issues associated with virtually every aspect of fracking. Leaking well-casing seals, radioactive isotopes in the frack fluid, compressor station air pollution, hazardous waste disposed as if it is household garbage, serious animal and human health impacts, contamination of water wells and surface water and almost-daily reports of accidents, spills, illegal dumping and explosions, are just a few of the many indicators of fracking's risks.
Compounding the problem is the apparent favoring of corporate over societal interests by government agencies. Environmental conservation departments fail to properly oversee the thousands of wells being drilled. Legislation that favors fracking is passed by politicians who have received immense amounts of money from the gas industry. We see this even in New York, where fracking has been on a temporary hold. The NYS Assembly recently passed a bill authorizing a two-year moratorium on fracking so that several health studies can be completed. But, Senator Libous, who received $190,000 from the gas industry in the last election cycle, refuses to bring the bill up for a vote.
Another example of an industry claim that isn't true is that there is a mile of solid rock protecting our aquifers from toxic fracking fluid. But rock is full of fractures, joints, faults, and thousands of old wells, all providing migration pathways from the shale gas layers up to the aquifers. The New York State motto is "Excelsior," which means "onwards and upwards." The problem is, our groundwater also follows this motto. A study by Duke University found brine and methane from Marcellus formation depths had migrated all the way up into aquifers. If those liquids and gases can migrate, so can toxic frack fluid, and once an aquifer is contaminated it cannot be cleaned.
Although fracking does provide some people with employment and some landowners with royalties, this is one more case where the big profits go to a few while the risks and the costs are spread to the many. Also, instead of the century or more of American energy independence as touted by the gas corporations, well-depletion rates and huge projected exports of our gas overseas are making this gas boom a bubble- one that will likely burst in a just few decades as gas becomes increasingly unaffordable.
Another concern is climate change. Though the gas industry claims natural gas is the "clean" fossil fuel, plentiful methane leaks give natural gas a dirtier greenhouse gas footprint than either coal or oil. The list goes on and on, disproving the industry's assurances and showing the science is not at all on the industry's side. Individually, these impacts are serious. Taken in totality, they are an indictment of energy corporations who are making guinea pigs of all people living in gas drilling regions. And, it is an experiment done partly in secret, with nondisclosure statements and gag orders preventing some of the impacts from even being reported.
New York state should choose a better path. We want our farms, our wineries, our tourism, our businesses, and our children and grandchildren to have a clean environment. Even though the gas industry has spent millions encouraging fracking, they see that the public is catching on, with recent polls showing that about half of Upstate New York is opposed to fracking. However, we can no longer depend on the federal or state governments to protect the environment or us. So, about 150 New York towns and cities have already enacted bans and moratoria on fracking with more joining in each week. Our new environmental group, Cattaraugus-Chautauqua for Clean Water, shares that goal, and readers are welcome to contact the group for more information at the email address below.
So, if we do ban fracking, what is the solution to our energy issues? The answer is obvious. Leave the gas in the ground and it will become much more valuable. Future generations will thank us for leaving them even a small fraction of the vast fossil fuel reserves that we've squandered in just over a century. And, renewable sources of energy can take up the slack. A study by Stanford University concluded that renewables can supply all of our energy needs, if we would just decide to switch. Just as individuals have quit smoking, we should say "Excelsior," and move onwards and upwards away from fossil fuel extraction and instead put our efforts into transitioning to sustainable energy sources. Rather than embracing a flawed fracking technology that endangers our water, our way of life and our future well-being, New York state can become a national leader and develop a permanently healthy economy in the switch to renewables.
Glenn Wahl is a local geology and environmental science instructor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.