Fracking, or hydrodraulic fracturing, is in the news because the battle over allowing the environmentally hazardous method of extracting natural gas from beneath shale took center stage in New York. It’s important, because every other state where the fracking industry has tried to set up shop has caved in and allowed the drilling to go on unabated (Vermont passed a ban, but the industry wasn’t interested in drilling there as they do not have natural gas reserves). As the lone holdout, New York represents the one possible victory for environmentalists against the industry, the one possible chance for researchers to demonstrate scientifically that fracking has negative environmental and health effects without the industry influencing the results of the studies.
So, this week, a four-year moratorium on fracking up for reconsideration was extended. New York state regulators at the Department of Environmental Conservation stated that they did not believe their environmental and health study would be completed in time for a November 29th deadline, thus prolonging the moratorium for another year. This news came just over a week after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state needed to complete their environmental and health study before he would make decisions about the moratorium. Environmentalists are not overjoyed with the news, because they were hoping that outside evaluators would also be brought on board to study the effects of fracking rather than just relying on the internal investigation of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Proponents of fracking, including the 77,000 property owners who form the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York who want to open up their land to fracking, are disappointed in the delay (this means there are potentially at least 77,000 new fracking wells that could be built).
But, additionally, fracking made news in New York, because a State Supreme Court judge struck down a local Bingingham moratorium the residents of that city has voted to impose. Environmentalists say not to worry, because the judge said their moratorium was unnecessary with the state ban in place and he didn’t like the way their law was written, but proponents of fracking were encouraged by the ruling.
Anyone who has seen the award-winning documentary, “Gasland,” knows anecdotally the potential horrors of fracking. Malevolent oil/gas corporations destroy the environment; ruin the health of hundreds of people, and bulldoze over any opposition in community after community. The government agencies that are supposed to protect, “We the People,” are complicit, seemingly indifferent, or impotent in the whole process. Immediately following the release of the film, the industry and its deep pockets set to work “debunking” the film. Only the most gullible and willfully ignorant information seeker would read their websites and believe their distortions.
In “Gasland,” the filmmaker, Josh Fox, points out that Dick Cheney pushed through exemptions to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund, and other environmental protections to enable fracking in the major 2005 energy bill. The retort by the industry…nuh, uh, we were never regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, so Josh Fox is wrong. Yes, their defense to this claim is that Cheney didn’t have to exempt them, because they never had to follow the law to begin with. They go further, however. They claim that despite not having to follow federal law, they did have to follow “aggressive” state laws. If you’ve seen “Gasland,” this probably will cause you to choke. The film exposes over and over again how inept state agencies were at regulating the industry. Citizens who were grossly and negatively affected by fracking pleaded with their state environmental protection agencies to do something when their drinking water was contaminated, when their animals were losing their hair or dying off in their streams, and when they themselves were becoming desperately ill. These government agencies did nothing. In one interview Josh Fox conducts with a representative of the Pennsylvania environmental protection agency, the man sounds like a representative of the natural gas industry.
The counterclaims of the industry don’t stop as they argue that Cheney didn’t really “force” the energy bill through, because it had significant support from Congress, including from Democrats. What they fail to mention is that the leadership of the Democrats were against this bill, but some of the rank and file were strong-armed and bought off by industry lobbyists. Not one of the finest moments for Democrats, to be sure, but definitely not evidence that the energy bill had bipartisan support.
The alleged debunking of “Gasland” doesn’t end there. Industry shills go on to argue the toxic chemicals used in the fracking process are disclosed to the public, and not hidden as proprietary. In March, the Atlantic covered the story of how doctors In Pennsylvania had been placed under a gag order regarding disclosing what chemicals were in fracking fluids. Recently, the fact that 2 out of 3 companies hide their fracking chemicals as “trade secrets” was uncovered, exposing the industry’s lies. Even if the fracking process didn’t use toxic chemicals, it uses millions of gallons of potable water, a precious resource that is becoming increasingly scarce.
While the industry picks at details in “Gasland,” such as whether some particular families’ water was flammable due to naturally occurring methane or their fracking procedure, they completely downplay the fact that they have to, by court order, ship in hundreds of gallons of water to multiple witnesses in the documentary who have verifiably contaminated water because of them. They gloss over the fact that they have paid off many potential witnesses to their pollution, and then forced them to sign non-disclosure agreements. Josh Fox was fortunate to find one family willing to break this non-disclosure agreement and testify to the harm fracking had caused them. As one woman in the film aptly summarized, “The corporate business model is to come into an area, develop it as fast as you can, and if you trash anything, you make the people who you impact prove it. You make them argue it in a court of law, and the last person standing gets bought off and you move on.”
Germany is now generating solar energy that meets nearly 50% of their midday energy needs. It’s hard to argue with how clean and climate-friendly solar is. Yet, we in the States appear to continue in the energy dark ages, beholden to the oil, gas, and coal industries. It seemed like a boon to the scientific community to finally have one of their most ardent climate change deniers, Richard Muller, finally admit that his Koch-funded study produced data that verified human-driven increases in global temperatures. What was disheartening was that his primary solution for reducing carbon emissions was to expand fracking. Not solar, not wind, but natural gas. His links to the oil and gas industry are apparently intact. It would truly be a win to see New York decide that rather than fracking, they would invest their resources in energy options like solar and wind.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.