Is Fracking – the nickname for the process of releasing natural gas by using water, salt, and sand to fracture rocks – safe? I don’t know … and I am beginning to think we will NEVER know for sure. There are three main reasons for this:
- What constitutes ‘fracking’ varies according to who you ask. For some it is the entire end-to-end process involved in getting natural gas from deep in the shale layer, while for others it is strictly the part of the process in which water and chemicals are used to free the gas. In local ‘town hall’ meetings representatives from gas companies have at times presented safety data from only one part of the process immediately following an overview of the entire process without clarifying the switch.
- As reported by the New York Times, the oil and gas industries have massive lobbies, have had huge allies in many recent administrations, and so have managed exemptions from both reporting and accountability standards in most of the environmental regulations that would otherwise cover fracking.
- One geologist states “5 Truths About Fracking That Are Not Up For Debate” … but even though what he says is not controversial, you can be SURE there has been debate! The sides are so polarized (‘drill, baby, drill’ vs. absolutely no drilling) that they are unwilling to cede any point to the other side … which really isn’t a good starting point for open and honest debate.
But the one that is a real killer to establishing public trust? Apparently several studies and reports that are widely used by pro-fracking groups to support their claims of negligible safety concerns were not just sponsored by the gas industry – they were guided and co-authored by gas industry representatives with a conflict of interest.
From the article at Wired:
Last week the University of Texas provost announced he would re-examine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It’s the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.
•Timothy Considine, another Penn State grad who’s now an economist at the University of Wyoming, was the lead author on a SUNY-Buffalo report in May that claimed state regulation had made fracking safe in Pennsylvania. Within days, a top Pennsylvania environmental official quoted the Buffalo study in testimony to Congress about the effectiveness of fracking regulations. But both the official and the study itself declined to mention that Considine’s close ties to the industry—and that his department had received nearly $6 million in donations from the oil and gas industry last year. Considine—whom one Pennsylvania newspaper called “the shale gas industry’s go-to professor”—also helped write the controversial 2009 Penn State study and a 2010 expansion of it that was funded by the American Petroleum Institute.
•In February a University of Texas professor and former head of the US Geological Survey, Charles G. Groat, penned a study that found no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking; the study didn’t disclose Groat’s seat on the board of major Texas fracker Plains Exploration & Production Company, for which he was reportedly paid $400,000 in 2011—more than double his university salary. The director of Groat’s UT program told Bloomberg News he had “no idea” of Groat’s connection to Plains, but last Tuesday the University of Texas provost said in response to mounting concern that he would convene a panel to re-examine Groat’s findings.
Industry involvement in academic research is very common – the money is absolutely essential to the universities, and the value of independent research to industry is immeasurable. The problem is when the research is NOT independent, as seems to be the case here. Bad science such as this casts ALL of the other research into doubt, and makes any industry-sponsored work subject to re-examination and suspicion. That is definitely not good for anyone involved.
The ’5 Truths’ article sets a noble goal by stating that fracking IS coming, but also says we owe it to ourselves to properly understand the risks and hazards – because contrary to some studies there ARE hazards. In past energy shifts, safety was thought about afterwards, with the result being sickness, cancer, death and a legacy of spoiled lands. Everyone wants inexpensive energy … but we also deserve to understand the hidden costs of getting there. Demanding accountability in research is critical to that process.