This weekend I spent many hours learning about hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking”. I watched Gasland, Fracknation, and read pages and pages of articles, reports, and regulations.
There is a lot of FUD on both sides, but it seems clear there is a realistic probability that gas extraction has negative health impacts in a non-trivial number of communities. This probability, especially given the bad track record of the oil and gas industry, should be sufficient to justify more caution than is currently being applied.
I don’t trust the US EPA. I am sure they have good individual people, but as an organisation they appear crippled by budget cuts and political pressure. The US government made an explicit bipartisan decision with the 2005 Energy Policy Act to reduce regulatory oversight on fracking, enabling companies to move faster with possibly dangerous technology. This is inexcusable. Gas prices in the US are less than half most of the world. Slow down.
Many farmers want drilling on their land (see Fracknation) since without that income they may not be able to stay in business. This is a saddening position for farmers to be in, but is a scary argument. Subsidizing failing farming operations by playing the earth lottery is bad business. We need public policy that addresses the needs of communities whose current best options are to sell to extraction companies. Naomi Klein writes about this in the context of indigenous rights, though it applies to all disenfranchised communities:
Part of the job of the climate movement, then, is to make the moral case that the communities who have suffered most from unjust resource relationships should be first to be supported in their efforts to build the next, life-based economy now. And that means a fundamentally new relationship, in which those communities have full control over resource projects, so that they become opportunities for skills training, jobs, and steady revenues (rather than one-off payments). This point needs to be stressed because far too many large-scale renewable energy projects are being imposed on Native lands without proper consultation and consent, replicating old colonial patterns in which profits (and skills and jobs) go to outsiders. The shift from one power system to another must be more than a mere flipping of a switch from underground to aboveground. It must be accompanied by a power correction in which the old injustices that plague our societies are righted once and for all. - This Changes Everything, p399
If you’d like to investigate more, I recommend starting with:
- The aforementioned documentaries Gasland 1 and 2, Fracknation, EID’s rebuttal to Gasland, and Gasland’s counter-rebuttal “Affirming Gasland”. These show two extremes and how facts can be twisted.
- Propublica’s ongoing Fracking series (including the music video - actually pretty spot on)
- T. Boone Pickens’ pro-gas TED talk
- A model for calculating social cost of fracking
- The Safe Drinking Water Act (just kidding it’s impenetrable…)
- NSW Chief Scientist final report on Coal Seam Gas Extraction
Those are mostly pretty US-centric, but start researching from there and you will find a rabbit hole far deeper than you probably wanted!