This is a slightly revised version of a piece that was originally published in the Reader’s Forum of the Athens News on Nov. 23, 2011.
By Bernhard Debatin
In his column on fracking (Nov. 17), Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith admits that he sits on the fence regarding this issue, partly out of contrariness and to provide balance in a debate that he perceives as lopsided. However, when the facts are not speaking for balance, then there’s no point in presenting a topic in a “balanced” way. Here are some facts that should inform the debate:
It is well known (and not even seriously disputed by the industry) that hydro-fracturing has a massive impact on the environment. A preliminary report from the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board of Aug. 11, 2011, identifies four major areas of concern:
“(1) Possible pollution of drinking water from methane and chemicals used in fracturing fluids;
(2) Air pollution;
(3) Community disruption during shale gas production; and
(4) Cumulative adverse impacts that intensive shale production can have on communities and ecosystems” (p. 8).
The report warns that fracking “can potentially have serious impacts on public health, the environment and quality of life – even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements. The combination of impacts from multiple drilling and production operations, support infrastructure (pipelines, road networks, etc.) and related activities can overwhelm ecosystems and communities.” (p. 25).
What’s disturbing in this context is that the fracking industry is allowed to operate largely outside of the law. This industry enjoys a remarkable lack of regulatory oversight and accountability mechanisms, also known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts the fracking industry “from seven of the 15 major laws designed to protect air and water from contamination from harmful substances, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Superfund Act.” (The New York Times, 3 March 2011).
For instance, the fracking industry is allowed to extract unlimited amounts of water onsite, which can easily deplete important local water resources. Each individual gas well requires massive amounts of water (between one and eight million gallons) for hydro-fracturing. Between 20 and 50 percent of this water returns back to the surface as waste water, containing a toxic mix of up to 600 different chemicals, some of which are highly dangerous for humans and animals in small concentrations.
The concrete pipes that are used to pump the water in and out of the deep wells are not reliable either: According to a Cornell University study, “one quarter of all cement jobs fail immediately,” and up to “three quarters fail eventually,” allowing contaminated water to seep into aquifers at any level. This explains the ground water contaminations found in a variety of fracking places, including Pavillion County in Wyoming, where the federal EPA confirmed earlier in November that these pollutions are in fact caused by fracking and not a natural occurrence, as the industry claims (ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2011).
Historically, we have seen similar extraction booms before. The coal boom of the late 19th and early 20th century left southeast Ohio in a state of environmental degradation and deforestation. The benefits went one-sidedly to a few corporations and individuals, while the population remained impoverished. The consequences are still distinctly tangible 100 years later. A fracking boom without attention to and remediation of undesirable short- and long-term effects will have similarly devastating consequences for our social and natural environment.
In Athens County, we are living above Utica shale formation, which is targeted as fracking grounds. We are all getting our water from local aquifers that are in immediate danger of getting polluted by fracking activities. The precautionary principle tells us that we need to approach this technology prudently and with proper safety regulations.
In the interest of the well-being of our community, our country and the environment, we must ask for a moratorium on horizontal hydro-fracturing until…
a) independent and reliable environmental impact studies on the risks and side-effects of all aspects of the fracking process have been conducted;
b) stronger environmental regulations are in place to monitor the drilling process, cement pipe stability, water and air quality, and waste disposal sites, before, during, and after operation;
c) better monitoring capacities are in place (in 2008, ODNR had only 28 well inspectors for 64,000 wells — update 12/13/2011: currently, ODNR has about 40 employees to oversee the over 64,000 wells in Ohio);
d) stronger and reasonable taxation is in place that gives counties and communities a fair share of the benefits and that includes remediation and other follow-up costs.
Therefore and as a first step, we should support Ohio Senate Bill 213 and Ohio House Bill 345 to impose a moratorium on horizontal fracking until the U.S. EPA completes a multi-year study on the safety of fracking, and Ohio Senate Bill 212, which requires full disclose of drilling chemicals and other changes to fracking regulations. However, more desirable is a moratorium that would be contingent on the criteria listed above under a) to d).
Like many others who are skeptical about fracking, I am not opposed to gas drilling in general. But I am adamantly opposed to a practice and policy that ignores basic cautionary measures to protect humans and the environment. And that’s where “balance” is no longer an appropriate guide.