“We can’t live without water, but we can live without gas!” To an eruption of cheers and applause, Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, rallied the crowd at Water Fight!, a seminar on hydraulic fracking, food and the economy hosted by Baum Forum last month at the New School in Manhattan.
Fracking is the nickname of a process called hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking used to remove natural gas reserves thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. A drill is sent deep into the ground, and a high-pressure explosive charge of water and chemicals is used to release methane gas. Each “frack” job uses one to seven million gallons of water, which is mixed with hundreds of unknown chemicals. Economic pressures in rural regions make natural gas drilling contracts extremely attractive. These lucrative contracts are particularly alluring for struggling farmers; in response some grocers such as the Park Slope Food Co-op have already moved to limit food purchases from fracking zones in the United States.
The natural gas industry maintains that fracking is safe, and many states use the technology. However, widespread cases of groundwater contamination have been reported from Pennsylvania to Colorado, and crops and livestock nearby could also be impacted by the ozone, hydrocarbons and heavy metals released by fracking operations. In the 2010 documentary Gasland, families living near fracking wells wake to find their faucets spewing brown streams of water, heavy with the smell of chemicals. One man lights a match, holding it up to the water, and a fireball erupts, engulfing the sink. (This interesting article from the Times talks to the director and discusses the debate over the process and its safety.)
Gas companies are also not required to reveal the chemicals they use for fracking, as the industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act (that exemption also has a cute nickname: The “Halliburton loophole.”)
In New York, however, there is a moratorium on fracking while the state conducts a study on the issue. Kate Sinding, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is opposed to fracking, explained that the Department of Environmental Conservation was expected to release their findings no earlier than the fall. This would be followed by a public comment period, followed by a full evaluation of submitted comments. “So we have some time,” said Sinding, “but that doesn’t mean we can pat ourselves on the back.”
Can fracking be done safely? During the Q&A session, it was pointed out that thousands of wells have been drilled that aren’t problematic. How do you assess the risk of fracking against our need for energy? The Baum panel agreed that our current technological safeguards and regulatory mechanisms are insufficient for “safe” fracking. Moreover, not enough research has been done on the impact of fracking. Since landowners who lease their property for gas drilling generally must sign non-disclosure agreements, many contamination claims have never been fully investigated.
For more information on fracking and ways you can get involved with the public policy debate on the issue, visit CleanWaterNotDirtyDrilling.org.