Pro vs. Con: What the Frack?

Did you think "Drill, baby, drill," would go away after Senator John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential run? Or maybe the death knell would come after the catastrophic BP Deepwater oil rig gusher in the Gulf of Mexico? Not quite. "Drill, baby, drill" continues to sweep the nation, but in this case it’s for a fossil fuel with a smaller profile – natural gas.

In deep shale deposits underlying 34 states from Texas to New York, huge amounts of natural gas are being extracted through a technique called hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"). As a recent New York Times article reveals, in spite of financial incentives for some, conflict exists because numerous problems – like wastewater disposal, contaminated drinking water, gas rig explosions and animal deaths – have been linked to fracking in communities where it has been introduced.

Below are two perspectives that put the issue of fracking into relief. The first piece is by Chris Tucker, Communications Director for well known natural gas industry proponent, Energy In Depth. He makes the case that fracking is safe to people, water resources and the environment if done right. The second is by, Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney and Deputy Director for the NRDC New York Urban Program who contends that that in light of myriad claims of negative impacts linked to fracking, the process should not proceed in New York until credible studies are conducted and proper regulations are in place.  The two will go head to head tomorrow in a Huffington Post debate to wrangle over whether natural gas is really "green" and what impacts fracking might have.

The United States' energy sector is committed to providing and expanding domestic natural gas to markets and consumers, but the question remains: At what cost to public health, communities and ecosystems will we allow fracking?

PRO: Opportunity of the Marcellus is Immense – But So is the Responsibility to Get It Right

Chris Tucker is Communications Director for EnergyInDepth.org

What would you say if I told you that right now more than 70,000 vertical natural gas wells were spread out across Pennsylvania and New York – currently churning out something like 300 million cubic feet of natural gas a year? Now what would you say if I told you that we could harvest 30 times that amount of clean-burning gas in the future by drilling only a fraction of those wells?

Much more needs to be done, obviously. But stretching back more than 60 years, our industry can point to a record of safety and performance that few other industrial or manufacturing interests can claim.

At its core, that’s exactly what the combination of hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and the Marcellus Shale is expected to make possible for the mid-Atlantic region over the next 10 years. It’s become cliché to refer to this opportunity as a "game-changer," especially for a part of the world that can certainly use the economic boost. But that doesn’t make it any less true: In Pennsylvania, Marcellus development has already created about 90,000 new jobs, with some projections suggesting that number will more than double (PDF) by 2020. Another study estimated that 16,000 new jobs could be generated from the Marcellus in a single county of New York. Pretty unbelievable, right? The good news is that this might just be the tip of the iceberg; with all this talk about the Marcellus, some analysts predict that the Utica Shale of Pennsylvania and New York might prove an even more productive field before it’s all said and done.

Of course, the extent to which this opportunity will be fully realized for our region depends entirely on whether the process can and will be done right. Sure, hydraulic fracturing has been around for an awful long time – in use in New York for the past 50 years. And sure, producers have developed energy resources from formations far deeper and more difficult to access than the Mighty Marcellus. But none of that should be used to dismiss, minimize or explain away the public’s concerns about what the development of the Marcellus might mean for the quality of their air, water and surrounding environment. Those concerns are real – and it’s incumbent on the industry to address them in a forthright, straightforward and substantive way.

Thankfully, that work is already well underway in New York, with producers taking a much more active role in directly engaging the public with answers on how much water we intend to use, what we intend to do with the water that comes back up, what the materials involved in the process are comprised of (PDF), and how these activities can co-exist with and in fact be woven into the social and cultural fabric of the communities in which we'd like to someday do business.

Much more needs to be done, obviously. But stretching back more than 60 years, our industry can point to a record of safety and performance that few other industrial or manufacturing interests can claim. Even former EPA administrator (and current White House energy czar) Carol Browner has gone on record to confirm that point.

Of course, you can stack up all the studies from EPA (PDF) and all the testimonials from state regulatory agencies (PDF) you want: no study in the world is going to convince 100 percent of the population that its water will be protected as we seek to develop a resource more than a mile-and-a-half below its aquifers. To do that, we're going to need an opportunity to prove we can get the job done right. And one thing we know for certain: We know we're going to be in a fishbowl the entire time we're doing it. Frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the final analysis, though, it’s going take a lot more than drill bits and pressure pumps to deliver on the massive potential of this natural resource base. We're going to need sound regulations from the state (and committed, expert regulators) to ensure every single operator is using the best possible practices to safeguard the health and welfare of the public. We're going to need to be able to demonstrate to state and local governments that their roads will be protected and refurbished fully after their use, and that traffic, noise and dust will be kept to an absolute minimum.

And we're going to have to be upfront about the likelihood that some of these activities will result in some short-term inconveniences for folks who aren’t all that familiar with this industry or how it works. In PA, it’s not as easy these days to find a hotel room or buy an F-150 truck. Diners have more than their share of unfamiliar faces. And while these concerns may sound trivial to you, they're very real for the folks who have lived in these communities stretching back across generations.

But I know we can do it right. And I know that not just because I've read the reports or talked to the regulators or conferred with the geologists or studied the technologies that someday will be used to recycle a full 100 percent of the wastewater generated from the Marcellus (we're currently at 70 percent in PA). I know that because it’s already been proven to be safe in communities all across the United States, and increasingly, around the world. All we're asking for is a shot to prove the same here in New York. Be assured: We know we don’t have but one chance to get it right.

CON: Fracking Costs Communities Their Health, Environment and Character

Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney and Deputy Director of the NRDC New York Urban Program

Big gas corporations are trying hard to convince you it’s in your best interest to make them richer by risking your health and clean drinking water. They're dancing into rural communities across America with promises of economic wealth in exchange for residents allowing them to practice controversial gas drilling methods, like fracking, on their property. And to-date, the government has allowed these companies to operate – literally in American backyards – without sufficient regulation or oversight to protect residents from the potential consequences. The result – which gas companies don’t mention – is often grave. The costs to these communities are abundant and severe, and many never even see the significant paychecks they were promised.

New York has an opportunity that other states didn’t get, to say no to new industrial drilling unless it can be proven to be done safely. To squander that chance would be foolish. The state must do everything necessary to protect its people and communities.

Every state where gas companies are already active – from Wyoming to Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania – has its share of communities that have been transformed into industrial zones, and where drinking water has been contaminated, residents have reported illnesses, livestock have dropped dead, and/or the air has become seriously polluted. Scientists are even concerned fracking could cause earthquakes and taint food supplies via the produce and livestock in areas where it takes place. Just ask residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania – a beautiful farm country town set in rolling hills – what can happen when big gas corporations become your neighbors. Dimock residents Craig and Julie Sautner can tell you. Once self-proclaimed "drill baby drill" supporters, these proud grandparents signed-on to drilling after promises of early retirement. Now, they can’t drink their tap water. They are forced to rely on water deliveries from the gas companies – which involves strangers coming into their home (of late armed with guns) on a regular basis. Their grandkids are too scared to visit them anymore, worried the house will explode like their neighbor’s (other neighbors can literally light their tap water on fire).

While gas companies are prone to deny blame when these incidents are reported – there is evidence to the contrary. The state of Pennsylvania, for instance, recently announced the gas company must connect the affected families, including the Sautners, to a new public water supply. Others around the country have not been so lucky.

And it doesn’t stop with contaminated water. Dimock’s picturesque rural landscape has been transformedinto an industrial zone, marred by diesel fumes, 24-hour truck traffic on their gravel roads, and noises that shake the walls of homes. Residents report illegal disposal of toxic wastewater by gas company workers who spray it on local roads. They report skin rashes, severe nausea, headaches and sickened livestock and family pets. The Sautners don’t want to retire there anymore. But they fear no one will ever want to buy their home now – that they're trapped. And in the end, they say the money they received from the gas companies was just enough for a short vacation to escape the nightmare their daily lives have become.

Now big gas companies have their eyes set just over the river in New York, the latest battleground in the national fight to protect Americans from big gas corporations. They're literally knocking on the doors of quiet Catskill communities.

What happens if drilling poisons the Delaware River watershed that provides clean drinking water to over 17 million people – from New Jersey to Philadelphia, the Catskills and all of New York City? The scale of health and environmental consequences would be massive. Are New Yorkers willing to accept toxic tap water? Are gas companies prepared to deliver fresh water to all five boroughs, the Hudson River Valley, and upstate if they contaminate our water supply? Cleaning up an accident in the New York City watershed alone is conservatively estimated to require building a $10 billion water treatment plant that would cost billions more to operate (and would only remove sediments, not toxic chemicals).

New York has an opportunity that other states didn’t get, to say no to new industrial drilling unless it can be proven to be done safely. To squander that chance would be foolish. The state must do everything necessary to protect its people and communities. That means conducting all of the necessary studies, and awaiting the results of the Environmental Protection Agency’s upcoming first-ever comprehensive and credible fracking study, to understand all of the risks. That means not allowing the big corporations to start fracking unless they can show us it won’t pollute the water, air or landscape. And it means identifying those places that are so vulnerable that drilling should never be allowed to occur. The decision to permit fracking should not be taken lightly – clean drinking water, residents' health, communities' character and our natural environment are on the line.

The government has a responsibility to protect us – and we have a right to protect ourselves – from powerful outsiders who are likely to be long gone when the bill comes due.

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