Posted on Monday, July 18th, 2011 at 10:20 pm
Author: Erik Loomis
The United States’ desperation for domestically produced energy continues to lead to destructive decisions that decimate ecosystems and human lives. Mountaintop removal coal mining tears apart the West Virginia mountains; a recent study has connected mountaintop removal with a rise in birth defects. Coal industry lawyers responded by blaming the defects on incest. Oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has resumed after last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. Former petroleum company employees staff underfunded and demoralized regulatory agencies. In the face of nonexistent national leadership on clean energy, Americans continue embracing poorly tested energy technologies with reckless abandon.
Fracking is a process by which millions of gallons of fluid are pumped down a well into rock. The resulting pressure fractures the rock, allowing wells to bring up difficult to reach natural gas. Supporters say that it provides cheap, domestically produced energy that we need for economic growth. They claim that burning natural gas is less deleterious to the climate than coal or oil.
But environmentalists have strongly criticized fracking. We simply do not know the long-term effects of fracking upon nature or the human body. We do know that it has contaminated ground water supplies both in the United States and around the world. Drilling operations inject hazardous substances into the wells that can expose humans to danger. Environmental Protection Agency documents have shown increases in radium and benzene in water supplies near fracking sites. In an interview with Global Comment this year, Gasland director Josh Fox lambasted how we allow companies to do whatever they want, noting “You can’t just go, ‘Oops. Well, let’s do it over and fill the ground back up with clean water.’ Once it’s contaminated it’s going to stay that way and it’s going to stay that way forever.”
Fracking became a national story early this year with a disturbing rise of earthquakes near natural gas wells in Arkansas. Soon after opening these wells, small earthquakes began along a previously unknown fault line north of Little Rock. Over 700 earthquakes occurred within six months, culminating on February 28 with a trembler reaching 4.7 on the Richter scale. This was Arkansas’ strongest quake in 35 years. The natural gas companies then shut down the wells for further study. Almost immediately, the earthquakes subsided.
Poorly enforced regulations allow energy companies to engage in destructive behavior with their wells. As reported this week by the Associated Press, in 2007, Berry Energy drilled a well in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. The company disposed of the salty fluid by spraying it in the area around the well, literally salting the earth. Small plants began dying almost immediately. Within two years, more than half the trees had died and concentrations of sodium and chlorine in the soil were 50 times higher than normal.
Perhaps most disturbing, New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has recently approved large-scale fracking projects in the central part of the state in exchange for closing a nuclear power plant near New York City. I drove through this area last week. Cars, buildings, and telephone poles were festooned with anti-fracking signs and stickers, some profane. There were a few pro-fracking signs as well, usually at the entrances to farms whose owners presumably welcome the financial opportunities that come with hosting a well. In areas with limited economic options, landowners can receive significant income from wells. In Arkansas, many residents pray the wells are not causing the earthquakes because for the first time in generations, they are making money off their land.
Some have defended Cuomo’s actions, noting his appointment of leading environmentalists, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hydraulic Fracturing Advisory Panel. But grassroots environmental groups rightfully feel that the “Big Greens” have embraced fracking in order to wean the nation off of coal, despite the procedure’s significant environmental consequences.
Moreover, Kennedy has some credibility problems. First, his aggressive promotion of the vaccination-autism lie suggests a questionable approach to science. Second, grassroots environmentalists have accused of Kennedy of cozying up to energy companies. He tried to negotiate a deal with oil companies in Ecuador that would allow them to drill on indigenous lands. But local people, with support from environmental activists around the world, rejected the deal because it provided no real oversight or penalties against the companies if they did not comply with the details of the deal. Kennedy also attended the Critical Path Energy Summit last year which matched the natural gas industry, leading environmental organizations, and the government to think about ways to increase natural gas production.
Cuomo himself seems to have admitted inconsistencies in his energy policy when he banned fracking in the New York City watershed but opened it for most of the state. If fracking is safe, why not allow it near New York City? If it is not safe, are the watersheds of rural peoples less valuable than that of the cities?
Supporters of fracking often say that environmentalists oppose all energy development. It is true that we have real energy needs. All energy comes with an environmental cost, whether nasty chemicals used in producing solar panels, dead birds from wind turbines, or climate change from burning fossil fuels. These stories from Arkansas and West Virginia suggest that we need a lot more research on fracking before we embrace it as national policy. Perhaps the Arkansas earthquakes are a coincidence. Maybe states can properly regulate fracking. As usual however, science follows our thirst for cheap energy rather than creating a path for long-term clean energy independence through careful research and cautious treading.
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