How much more evidence do we need that fracking is harmful?


They held a Democratic primary election in New York State this Tuesday, and an upstart candidate for governor with the unlikely name of Zephyr Teachout — who was outspent about 50-to-1 by the incumbent Andrew Cuomo — did surprisingly well given the obstacles. She got about 34 percent of the vote overall, but she actually defeated the powerful, well-known Cuomo in about 20 counties in the central part of the state. The biggest reason for that? Her forceful, passionate opposition to allowing fracking in upstate New York.

The people are smart. Most citizens have come to understand that while the gains of the natural-gas drilling boom are fairly ephemeral — some jobs that often go to folks mostly from out-of-state anyway, a few years of royalties for some landowners, maybe a bit lower heating bills — the environmental scars are deep and long-lasting. Many citizens have figured out that no royalty check is worth more than your family’s good health.

I’ve long maintained that there should be a go-slow approach to fracking — with moratoriums in place in untapped regions like upstate New York — until society better understood the risks. Now, the tide is turning. The pace of scientific research is increasing, and the news about fracking just keeps getting worse. Even as the election results were coming in from New York, a major health study contained alarming news about Pennsylvania, where large-scale fracking has taken place for about 5-6 years:

People who live closest to natural gas wells were twice as likely to report skin problems and upper respiratory symptoms, according to a study published Wednesday examining the possible link between public health and gas extraction.

Researchers from Yale and the University of Washington randomly surveyed nearly 500 residents in the heart of the Marcellus Shale in southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the region’s most intensely drilled areas. They limited the survey to residents with ground-fed water wells because of concerns in some quarters that hydraulic fracturing can contaminate water supplies.

They found that residents living within a kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) of the nearest well were more likely to report symptoms such as rashes, allergies, sinus problems, coughs, sore throats, itchy eyes, nose bleeds and stuffy noses than those who lived more than two kilometers away.

These findings aren’t much of a surprise, in a sense, because we’ve been seeing anecdotal reports of these types of problems among rural fracking neighbors for several years. Still, some are inclined to dismiss these immediate health concerns, arguing that fracking is still better for the human race in the long run. That’s because, the argument goes, the natural gas from fracking is a cleaner burning fuel than what it’s replacing — mainly coal — and so the reductions in greenhouse gases will stave off the devastating effects of global warming.

Except there is a fatal flaw in that calculation. The fracking process produces higher-than-expected levels of methane, which is a major contributor to climate change. Here’s the latest on that:

Over time, academic research has done what its supposed to do, providing an ever-narrower range of numbers. In April, Howarth published a review of all the data sets so far, and they showed that his original numbers were pretty likely correct: Up to 5 percent of the methane probably leaks out before the gas is finally burned.

Why exactly it leaks is unclear. New research, some of it involving Howarth but led by chemists at Purdue University, seems to show that drills can open up gas pockets even before they reach their target in the shale, and that this can send big plumes of methane into the atmosphere. A Canadian panel that evaluated fracking focused, among other things, on the difficulty of effectively sealing wells with cement around the drill pipe, both during production and once they’re abandoned.

Multiply these methane leaks by the thousands of new fracking wells that have been drilled in this country, and you now have a major new crisis with greenhouse-gas pollution. I haven’t even mentioned some of the other problems with fracking, such as manmade earthquakes and its massive use of water in drought-stricken areas. But at this point, is that additional information even necessary? Isn’t the knowledge that fracking rigs are making people who live near them sick enough, already, for America to choose a new direction on energy policy?

Learn more about the health woes of people who live near drilling sites in Pennsylvania:

Read more from Mother Jones about the link between fracking and global warming:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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