In a showdown that’s playing out like an industrial take on Moses threatening the Egyptians with the 10 plagues, five of the most prominent environmental groups in the nation are warning of an impending catastrophic occurrence of, some would say, biblical proportions. It will contaminate your drinking water with carcinogenic chemicals. It will drain radioactive material, like radium, into your rivers and streams. It will, in fact, spread toxicity upon the land. No joke (biblical references aside).
The pestilence is fracking, the ultra-aggressive natural gas extraction process that has been tied to everything from flammable tap water to exploding wells to dead cattle (see links to articles below).
As many of you know by now (but I’ll repeat it anyway), hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” involves injecting huge volumes of water, sand and a mixture of toxic chemicals (like benzene) deep into the ground under extremely high pressure. The pressurized fracking fluid breaks open shale formations and releases the natural gas contained therein. The risk, considered indefensible by many, is that the carcinogenic chemicals used in the process can leach into nearby aquifers, reservoirs and drinking water wells – and the hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive wastewater that fracking produces are being dumped into rivers and streams (see link below to my previous post on the dangers of fracking).
The speed with which fracking has taken hold of the American landscape is dizzying – rising from relative obscurity, in just the last five years, to become the fastest growing sector of the new energy industry. In Pennsylvania, home to the sweet spot of the high-volume Marcellus Shale formation, the first fracked well came into production in 2005. Today there are more than 1,500 in Pennsylvania alone, and the proliferation continues unabated. Billions in profits have spawned a modern-day gold rush, as the oil and gas industry fracks its way across gas-rich expanses of the country like a locust swarm.
But before you get too disheartened (with the biblical doomsday talk), I should mention that America’s enviro elites are returning fire in the fracking battleground of New York, where the safe drinking water of millions of residents hangs in the balance. The group of green glitterati includes: the Environmental Advocates of New York, Earthworks, Eearthjustice, Citizens Campaign for the Environment and Riverkeeper.
On Tuesday, in a David Letterman moment, the green coalition released a highly anticipated list of the most urgent concerns – more accurately, dangers – tied to fracking. Letterman may have called it the “Top-10 Reasons Never to Allow Fracking in Your Backyard.” The list, which lays bare the enormous shortcomings in current fracking regulation, comes in direct opposition to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision to lift a statewide ban on fracking – and almost dares the young governor to defy the heat.
The central question inside the increasingly acrimonious national debate has always been: Can fracking be done safely? Critics say no, arguing, among other valid points, that even the tightest regulations mean nothing when regulators don’t enforce them. Frackers and their supporters in government admit that the process poses real risks to the public and the environment, but claim that the process can be done in a safe manner with the proper kinds of safeguards and regulations. The frackers and their boosters fail to account for political realities that make regulating the enormously powerful oil and gas industry a nonstarter. These are realities that have worked against any real regulatory enforcement for decades, and will for decades more. Consider this from a June 27 article in the Louisiana Weekly:
Last week, Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck said “the state has been reluctant to regulate any aspect of the oil and gas industry for the past 90 years.”
“What regulations and protections we enjoy have been federally imposed, often by citizen lawsuits,” he said. “But the oil and gas industry, led by our Congressional delegation, has managed to neuter much federal regulation.”
It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry, through bare-knuckle lobbying efforts and hefty campaign contributions, has been allowed to run roughshod over the environment for most of its checkered history. But flying in the face of all that, Gov. Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), argues that the agency’s proposed regulations would provide adequate protection of the environment. From the DEC (see link to regulations below):
These recommendations, if adopted in final form, would protect the state’s environmentally sensitive areas while realizing the economic development and energy benefits of the state’s natural gas resources. Approximately 85 percent of the Marcellus Shale would be accessible to natural gas extraction under these recommendations.
Despite the DEC’s assurances, the environmental coalition has some serious concerns. The “Top-10 List,” which does indeed read like a contemporary take on Moses’ plagues, targets New York but it can be applied as a model for keeping frackers and regulators honest in any locality.
Here’s the coalition’s first concern:
1. New York State isn’t proposing to ban any chemicals, even those known to be toxic and carcinogenic. While the proposed public disclosure component has been strengthened, telling New Yorkers what toxic chemicals will be used is not the same as protecting the public from negative health impacts.
Now here’s my David Letterman-esque translation (and so on down the list):
Reason #1 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: Your water will be laced with highly toxic fracking chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, ammonium chloride, acetic anhydride, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and propargyl alcohol. Now doesn’t that sound refreshing on hot summer afternoon?
2. The preliminary draft allows drilling waste to escape treatment as hazardous waste, even if it is in fact hazardous under the law. This means fracking waste could be sent to treatment facilities unable to properly treat it, putting the health and safety of our waters and communities at grave risk.
Reason #2 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: The proposed regulations to “ensure” public safety and a healthy environment are a sham. So, at the risk of repeating myself, your water will be laced with highly toxic fracking chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, ammonium chloride, acetic anhydride, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and propargyl alcohol and naturally occurring radioactive material, like radium-226 and radium-228, which is brought to the surface with the gas and oil.
3. The state proposes allowing sewage plants to treat drilling wastes, even though such plants are not permitted to handle the toxic elements in such wastes, and even though the DEC itself has called into question New York’s capacity and ability to treat fracking wastes.
Reason #3 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: Currently there is no way to effectively remove radioactive contaminants like radium from fracking wastewater, so in time those toxins will make their way into drinking water supplies. Here’s to a radioactive twist in every tall cool glass.
4. Drinking water supplies would be inadequately protected. The preliminary draft increases buffers and setbacks from aquifers and wells. However the protections are inconsistent and can be waived in some instances. All setbacks and buffers must be set to provide maximum protections that cannot be altered.
Reason #4 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: Have I mentioned that fracking regulations are a sham? In response to the claim of “maximum protections,” I have three words, “can be waived.” Enough said.
5. Some fracking restrictions would have sunset dates. The preliminary draft proposes to place some areas of the state off limits to gas drilling, but upon closer examination, many of the restrictions have sunset dates and some of the protective buffers only call for site-specific individual environmental review, rather than clear restrictions.
Reason #5 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: Many of the regulatory restrictions on fracking are designed to be phased out quickly once the ban is lifted, falling away to the infinitely more malleable “environmental review” approach. So if the regulations look weak to you now, just wait until the frackers have had a chance to work their magic from the inside.
6. The preliminary draft does not analyze public health impacts, despite the fact that fracking-related air pollution and the potential for water contamination have serious effects on people – especially the elderly and children, and communities downwind and downstream of proposed fracking operations. There is growing evidence of negative health impacts related to gas extraction in other states.
Reason #6 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: When regulators fail to even acknowledge the public health impacts of any high-impact industrial practice, you have to wonder what they’re trying to hide. If you’re looking for regulators to protect you, you’re barking up the wrong tree, in the wrong forest.
7. The DEC proposes issuing permits before formal rulemaking is complete, a backward move that leaves New York’s waters and communities at risk.
Reason #7 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: In the mad dash for profits (and tax revenues), regulators are allowing frackers to begin the work process unfettered by pesky rules that might protect people and the government.
8. The state is breaking up environmental impact reviews. The thousands of miles of pipelines or compressor stations required for drilling to get the resulting gas to market will be reviewed by a different agency under a different process. Without an accounting of such impacts, New York’s environmental assessment is incomplete and the full impacts of fracking are unknown. The Public Service Commission has jurisdiction over gas infrastructure. As such, Governor Cuomo should direct state agencies to coordinate their efforts in order to protect our air, water and communities.
Reason #8 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: Coordination and cooperation between regulatory agencies is a pipe dream. They have enough trouble coordinating efforts internally, let alone trying to integrate processes with others. In light of that fact, my guess is it will be quite some time before we know the full impacts of fracking in New York and beyond. But heaven forbid we should make frackers wait for those assessments to come in.
9. While proposing to put the New York City and Syracuse watersheds off-limits to drilling, critical water supply infrastructure would not be protected. The state proposes a buffer around New York City drinking water infrastructure in which only an additional review would be required and upon which projects could be permitted – not a formal ban. The proposed buffer is only one-quarter as long as a typical horizontal wellbore, too close to the sensitive, aging infrastructure that provides the city with drinking water. There are no proposed buffer requirements for Syracuse.
Reason #9 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: If given the choice, regulators will act in the best interest of the oil and gas industry not the environment or the public. Every day and twice on Sunday. It’s reflex. Regulators give frackers just a little more leeway than they should and provide a cornacopia of loopholes to be exploited.
10. New York’s environmental agency has been subject to steep budget and staff cuts and does not have adequate staff or resources to properly oversee fracking, even if every possible protection were in place. This reality raises the possibility that the DEC will be forced to cut corners with its reviews or fast-track permits despite the risks. Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Advocates of New York are members of an advisory panel expected to weigh in on agency resources and staffing in the months to come.
Reason #10 to never allowing fracking in your backyard: The DEC lacks both the budget and staff to keep frackers in line. So even if sound protections were in place (which, of course, they’re not), there aren’t enough regulators or resources to ensure the safety of drinking water supplies and the health of the environment in general.
So there you have the “Top-10 List” from a handful of the nation’s leading environmental groups. Sounds to me like Gov. Cuomo has some additional issues to consider before kicking open the Empire State to the ravages of fracking.
It appears the young governor is leading his state into some very dark environmental territory, but unlike the biblical Egyptians, New Yorkers still have time to prevent this disaster from being visited upon them.
With the strong backing from the nation’s top environmental groups, I urge New Yorkers to stand up and send a message to Gov. Cuomo and the DEC demanding a total ban on fracking.
If you don’t act now, you may see your landscape and legendary water contaminated in, well, a New York minute.
Here’s the Top-10 story from the Journal News: http://polhudson.lohudblogs.com/2011/07/19/enviros-release-top-10-list-of-fracking-concerns/
Read up on how fracking affects farms and cattle: http://www.grist.org/natural-gas/2011-05-19-fracking-with-our-food-how-gas-drilling-affects-farming
Review the DEC regulatory recommendations here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/press/75403.html
Read the April 6 NYT piece on Cuomo’s decision: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/nyregion/07cuomo.html
Read my previous post on fracking in New York: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/the-fracking-wars-new-yorks-legendary-tap-water-in-the-cross-hairs
Read my previous post on the dangers of fracking: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/pro-fracking-arguments-fail-to-grasp-one-inconvenient-issue-%E2%80%93%E2%80%93-the-reality-on-the-ground
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