Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fracking Hysteria?

When I was twelve or so, a camp counselor described me as “phlegmatic.” I had just put six arrows through an archery target's bull’s eye, and instead of jumping up and down, or screaming enthusiastically as some girls my age might have done, I silently went to pull the arrows out (in the proper way, left hand against the target, right firmly grasping the arrow), and handed the bow off to the next girl in line.

I wrote the word down and next time I was near a dictionary, I took a look. “Phlegmatic: adjective: (of a person) Having an unemotional and stolidly calm disposition.”

Well, maybe. I don’t resonate with the description, but it’s true that I’m not given to wild enthusiasm, tend not to worry much, and I’m rarely overcome by panic. I like a little drama now and then, but hysteria? Never. Not even close.

Hysteria has become the word of choice in describing those who express concern about fracking, hydraulic fracturing.  Spend time on Shale Gas Coalition websites (boring, I agree, but someone has to do it) and you’ll find a consistent message:
  • Oil companies have been using hydraulic fracturing for 60 years.
  • Hydraulic fracturing is safe and effectively regulated.
  • Misrepresentations, hysteria and fear-mongering threaten this clean energy resource.                                     
We live in an interesting time. In fact, the more I read, see, listen, think, the more convinced I am that the next few years will be long remembered as a watershed, or turning point. Where we’ll end up is still not clear, but it will be someplace very different from where we are right now. 

The oil and gas industry has a great deal of money committed to preserving the status quo, reliance on fossil fuel, even though that fossil fuel is harder and harder to get, and extracted from more and more sensitive regions, in more and more untested and dangerous ways.

The industry could use its profits to lead the way into a different future, but instead is spending millions fending off criticism and concern about the current course. This is tragically true in Pennsylvania, which has no limit on campaign contributions.  Donors from the oil and gas industry gave Governor Tom Corbett’s campaign over $1.6 million; more than a quarter of that was from individuals subsequently named to serve on his Marcellus Shale Commission. Another 1.9  million was given to people running for the state legislature. 

Add in the money spent on TV spots promoting “clean energy and good jobs”, an army of high-priced lobbyists, and the military psy-ops hired to make sure the industry maintains control at small town meetings and it’s clear the industry is determined to have it’s way, no matter who objects, or why.

from the Gasland movie website
Yes – I know eyes glaze over at the mention of hydraulic fracturing. It’s complicated, it’s science (who wants to think about science?) and those hysterical fear-mongers are putting snail darters, or some other environmental nonsense, over energy and jobs. And we know how much we need energy and jobs.

But we need our health more. And clean water. And clean air. Not to mention democratic discusson, among real stakeholders, about what’s best for our both our environment and our economy.

While the natural gas industry has been drilling for gas for the past sixty years, the techniques that are the focus of the current controversy are much more recent, and still untested. Slick-water fracking (injecting a stew of chemicals to keep seams in the shale from closing) was first tried in 1997. Horizontal and multi-stage fracking (which extend fractures far beyond the initial drill site) were introduced in 2004.

So – it’s all safe, right? Not at all. For each concern raised, for each disaster that happens, the industry says “That has nothing to do with this,” “You can’t prove we’re responsible,” “That was a glitch, but we’ve solved that now.”

Problems? Books can, and will be, written. I did blog on this a bit back in September, but the more I know, the more concerned I am:

     ·   Contaminated well water, either from mishandled fracking fluid, or from migration of fluids and methane through the fracture shale, causes headaches, rashes, dizziness, cancer, kidney failure, miscarriage. Pets and livestock have died. No count on how many wells have been contaminated so far. And no good research yet on what happens when the same contaminates find their way into larger drinking water supplie
Explosion near San Francisco
  ·    Toxins that evaporate from the fracking ponds — heavy metals, non-biodegradable chemicals, radioactive substances — settle on farms, on growing food, on pastures, waterways. Gases and dusts lingering in the air cause asthma, headaches, itchy eyes, leukemia, other cancers.
·         Methane migration into basements has caused explosions. “Blowouts”, well sites that explode from uncontrolled methane, have caused whole communities to be evacuated. Local volunteer fire companies are not prepared to handle these events, and are put at risk when they are called on to put out these fires.
·         Whole streams have been killed from improper dumping of fracking fluids, or from toxins released by well site blowouts. Vegetation dies on contact.
·         And remember those strange earthquakes last summer? In places that don’t normally have earthquakes? The natural gas industry says there’s no possibility that they’re connected, but just this week an oil industry newsletter publicized the headline: U.S. Government Confirms Link Between Earthquakes and Hydraulic Fracturing.
I could go on. And on. And on. About the Halliburton Loophole, the exemptions the industry has from clean air and clean water regulations, the maneuvering by the industry, in individual states and in the national arena, to cut regulation and defund regulatory agencies, the potential impact on tourism, farming, food and water supply. 

This is an important month in the fracking world. And an important month for anyone in Pennsylvania, or the mid-Atlantic states. The Pennsylvania legislature is debating proposals from Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission for regulating fracking in the state. The proposals don’t address questions of density, don’t acknowledge the limited research on a host of health questions, and don’t go far enough to protect citizens, the environment, or the over-loaded roads and municipal water systems. A bipartisan Citizens Marcellus Shale Commission has offered its own recommendations, which have so far been ignored. Concerned watchdog groups are asking for a complete ban on further wells until more research is completed.

from the Josh Fox documentary Gasland
At the same time, the Delaware Basin River Commission is preparing to lift a moratorium on drilling in the Delaware watershed. The water supply of over fifteen million people is at stake, including public water in New York City, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Wilmington. As a regional paper notes: "The rule-making process is technical and complicated, yet it must be tempered with one precaution: If a fracking spill or blowout or illegal dumping of waste fluid ends up contaminating the Delaware River, it might not be easy to contain. Shutting off the intake valves for the public water supply of millions of people is not an option."

Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, professor, author, poet, mother and environmental cancer survivor, spoke at the conference I attended last month, and offered a compelling analogy she’s used in other settings: 
“Consider the drunk who has already cashed out his kid’s college fund, hocked the family heirlooms, burnt the furniture and terrified the dog. He’s beginning to grasp that he has a problem. And he’s also running out of whisky. He flirts with the idea of alcoholics anonymous. But wait. He suddenly discovers a fully loaded wine cellar buried deep beneath the basement of his house. Falling in love with his own cleverness, he begins to lay plans to blow up the foundation to get at it. His own family members hold an emergency meeting. What will they decide to do? Stay out of his way? Help him get the wine and regulate its consumption? Insist on overseeing the detonation of the basement? Or will they all join together and bar the way to the cellar steps?”
It’s time for intervention. And given the scale of the problem, it needs to be a big intervention.  The gas industry is rolling out fracking plans around the globe; France has already banned the practice, and other states and countries are watching Pennsyvlania to see if the industry can be stopped, or regulated in some way that ensures the safety of people, water, and air.

Need more information? Here are some places to start::
o        Fractracker
o        No Fracking  (a New York group, but scroll down on the site for a wealth of informative links)  
Organizations working together? Here are a few of the biggest. There are dozens more:
o        Clean Water Action
o        Damascus Citizens
o        Earthjustice
o        PennEnvironment

Want to do something right away?
o        Email the president:    
o        Sign a petition:  
o        Contact your legislators:
o        Or – in Pennsylvania  - call Governor Corbett’s office, 717-787-2500, and ask him to declare a  statewide moratorium on fracking.

The Loyalsock - a river at risk/ 2010
I’ll be participating in two protest events in the days ahead, one in State College on November 18, another at the Delaware River Basin Commission’s shale gas conference in Trenton on November 21.

Not because I’m hysterical. And not because I’m a fear-mongering activist.

But because I’ve seen the devastation of mystery illnesses – health lost to hidden dollars. I’d like to see less of those – not more.

Because I love streams, birds, cows, clean water, healthy food.

Because I want a say in the world we leave our children.
1. How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the freemarket and global trade? Please name your preferred poisons. . . .
4. In the name of patriotism and the flag, how much of our beloved land are you willing to desecrate? List in the following spaces the mountains, rivers, towns, farms you could most readily do without.
5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security, for which you would kill a child. Name, please, the children whomyou would be willing to kill. 
      (From “Questionnaire,” a poem by Wendell Berry)
Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments