When an oil company approached Josh Fox about drilling for natural gas on the land where his childhood home sits (which is also on a tributary to the Delaware River in Pennsylvania), he did what any environmentally-minded son of a hippy should do – he asked questions. He wanted to know what would happen to his land if he allowed the drilling, which would have paid him $100,000. Fox grabbed his video camera and started talking to people who had made that deal in numerous other states. He presented his findings in his new film, Gasland. What he found was disturbing.
In 2005, the EPA exempted hydraulic fracking (the process used in approximately 90 percent of oil and natural gas wells in the United States) from having to meet the regulatory requirements of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). That this happened under the Bush/Cheney administration is, of course, no surprise. The administration was no friend of the environment. Halliburton, the world’s second largest oil-field services corporation, created the process used in most fracking operations, and Mr. Cheney’s relationship with Halliburton has been well-documented. Since the late ‘90s, oil and gas drilling have received exemption after exemption from laws that are intended to protect human health and natural resources.
Now, there are hundreds of thousands of natural gas wells spread across 34 US states. Because of the CWA exemption and under the guise of proprietary business practices, drilling companies don’t typically release information about the exact chemicals used in the mixture they inject into boreholes, chemicals that ultimately end up in our groundwater.
In researching his film, Fox interviewed family after family whose drinking water wells had gone bad after fracking operations began on or near their land. Water from those wells is now discolored, foul-smelling and in many cases flammable – that’s right: it catches fire right from the tap – and people have gotten sick.
For the most part, the drilling companies claim no responsibility, although many have settled claims with victims (after those victims sign non-disclosure agreements). In numerous cases the companies pay to have clean water brought into the homes of those affected. But according to the drilling companies, fracking is safe. This is a really bad situation, and guess what? We all helped create it.
Fox’s film doesn’t make clear how many of the people he interviewed actually signed over the mineral rights on their property to the drilling companies without asking tough questions first. If it sounds like I'm blaming the victims here, I am. We are all victims and we are all to blame for the wounds we keep inflicting on ourselves.
Unfortunately the industry-inflicted problems are larger than Bush/Cheney, although their administration certainly made it much easier for oil and gas companies to inflict damage with little or no accountability. Although President Obama took office with the promise of change, it has taken one of the nation’s worst-ever environmental disasters to actually see where that change might happen. Bureaucratic changes and drilling moratoria are a good start but they are only just the beginning. The President has been in reaction mode since he took office and, unfortunately, his latest energy strategies don’t show any signs of the change we need to proactively get ourselves out in front of all these messes we keep creating.
We talk out of both sides of our mouths as we chide those responsible for things like the Gulf oil leak and poisoned well water, while jumping into our SUVs to pick up our fast food from the drive through window (or any number of variations on this scenario). Ultimately we have ourselves to blame for the damages that are inflicted on our air, land and water.
Corporations control much of our lives. They control much of the food and other products that are available for us to buy and – more and more – the quality and availability of the water we drink, cook, and wash with. We follow along blindly without questioning the impacts of that control or why we get so much for so cheap. Then we wonder what we've done to deserve the damage inflicted upon us.
Environmental sustainability is not just about holding polluters accountable and restricting their activities to ensure that they behave. True sustainability comes from all of us making better choices in everything from who we vote for and the programs they endorse to how we live our lives. We all need to support massive investments in infrastructure that reduce our need for fossil and nuclear fuels. If we demanded more investment in alternative power sources like wind and solar PV and significantly better public transportation systems, many of the problems associated with oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear fuels would just go away. If you take away the need for those fuels in the first place then you won’t be left with the mess that comes with obtaining them. It’s that simple, and that’s not fiction, that’s just plain fact.