Hydraulic fracturing: a tale of corporate power and citizen powerlessness

March 08, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

The week after the Oscars, I watched three of the Academy Award-nominated films in the Best Documentary category.

"Restrepo" is the poignant, sad story of American soldiers in a dangerous part of eastern Afghanistan trying to cope with the loss of two beloved members of their platoon. "Exit Through the Gift Shop," about the street art movement, is a hoot.

But "Gasland," director Josh Fox's expose on hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," is a depressing tale of corporate power and citizen powerlessness.

Above massive basins that cut across 34 American states, oil and gas companies use fracking to capture trapped natural gas by drilling deep into shale deposits thousands of feet underground. The process requires pumping millions of gallons of water and thousands of tons of sand deep into the earth, along with a combination of hundreds of combustible chemicals, some of them toxic, to crack the shale and release the gas deposits.

The Appalachian Basin is the largest in the country. Including the Devonian and Marcellus shales, it spreads across a swath of the Appalachian mountain range that covers all of West Virginia, most of Pennsylvania, the eastern half of Ohio and Southern Tier of New York, the western tip of Maryland, and small slices of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

Though motivated by profit, the oil and gas industry is correct to assert that developing domestic natural gas reserves creates jobs at home and decreases America's dependence on foreign oil. The question is whether the economic and security benefits outweigh the domestic risks and environmental pollution of groundwater and aquifers caused by fracking.

Critics say the environmental costs are widespread and that the damage is in some cases irreversible. In his documentary, Mr. Fox visits homeowners whose water supplies have become so contaminated, their tap water is actually flammable. People, their pets and their livestock are getting sick.

And who are the people dealing with this fight daily? They're mostly working-class and poor white folks from rural areas — people who exert very little power in Washington or their respective state capitals.

They certainly have less power than the oil and gas industry, which, thanks to a major assist from then-Vice President Dick Cheney, rewrote national environmental laws in 2005 to create specific exemptions to the groundwater protection statutes of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Dump your used motor oil in the Patapsco River, and you're in violation of the act, but when fracking firms leak benzene and other toxic chemicals into rivers and aquifers, they're immune.

The good news is that increased media attention and old-fashioned human political pressure are beginning to generate public outrage. Aided by media inquiries and meddling members of Congress, everyday citizens and celebrity activists led by Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo have prompted new, heightened scrutiny of fracking.

In the past few weeks, The New York Times published a multi-part investigation into fracking practices and consequences. Last Friday, Environmental Protection Agency director Lisa Jackson announced that she would investigate claims that damning scientific findings about fracking coming from her own agency were being suppressed. Secretary Ken Salazar promised that his Interior Department would investigate specific cases of polluted rivers and streams.

Led by New York's Maurice Hinchey and Colorado's Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, 46 House Democrats, including Maryland's John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen, sent Mr. Salazar a letter in January asking for the full list of chemicals used in fracking to be publicly released. "The public has a right to know what toxins might be going into the ground near their communities, and what might be leaking into their drinking water — they have a right to be well-informed," the letter states.

A spokeswoman for Roscoe Bartlett, whose Sixth Congressional District includes the Maryland portions of the Marcellus shale, e-mailed me to confirm that the congressman is "closely following the proceedings of the Maryland General Assembly concerning regulation of drilling in the Marcellus shale" and is also "following a study by EPA authorized and funded by Congress to assess the impact of hydrofracking on drinking water."

Harvesting domestic energy is generally good policy, but not if the unintended consequences are severe. People smart enough to design sophisticated systems to retrieve natural gas from thousands of feet below ground should be able to devise ways to do so not just profitably but safely. As Rep. Sarbanes told me by phone Tuesday, "If hydrofracking is as promising and profitable as the industry claims, the industry should be ready to do it right."

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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