New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rumored retreat on fracking shows just how powerful an anti-science, fear-based campaign can be. If reports are correct, Cuomo will restrict fracking to a few counties in which gas shale is far below the water table, and allow a veto to localities that are dominated by anti-fracking radicals. It's all in the name of ensuring the safety of drinking water, he purportedly believes--or protecting his political base.
Cuomo's decision validates the anti-frackers’ “study it to death” strategy. Their goal is to create the illusion that horizontal fracturing pollutes drinking water — even though the Environmental Protection Agency has publicly (if reluctantly) acknowledged that there is not one documented case of such pollution.
In three places where activists recently launched grandiose scare campaigns — Pavillion, Wyo.; Dimock, Pa., and Parker County, Texas — the EPA reflexively sided with protesters, claiming industry was at fault for polluting groundwater. In each case, it funded expensive studies to prove it — then backtracked when scrupulous scientific research showed fracking did not threaten drinking supplies.
From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up — because hydraulic fracturing is not new technology. It has been perfected over decades and tweaked in recent years to horizontally access deeply buried shale gas.
Fracking is basically pressure-pumping soapy water mixed with minute amounts (a fraction of a percent) of chemicals into wells 3,000 feet or more below the surface — far below the water table. (The mix suspends sand particles so they flow into the fissures generated by the enormous pressures, cracking the shale so gas can escape.)
The mix is then pushed into a holding pool next to the well and disposed of under regulations that have been dramatically tightened. Residue remains, but only at the well depth, far from water supplies.
Comprehensive restrictions in place in such states as Pennsylvania, and proposed for New York, will further limit potential problems.
Why, then, do environmental groups demonize fracking?
Actually, most of them welcomed the shale-gas revolution just a few years ago. The Sierra Club, for one, helped fund a breakthrough study at the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University that concluded that shale gas is a fantastic, low-carbon replacement fuel for higher-carbon-generating oil and coal.
But now, abundant natural gas has made the alternative-energy industry economically uncompetitive. That — and the success of dishonest anti-fracking propaganda like the film “Gasland” — prompted an about-face.
The Sierra Club recently launched a strident campaign, portraying fracking as a “violent process” that “poisons” us. What about the Carnegie study? Forgetaboutit. The group no longer mentions it. Instead, it’s calling for “new research” to document (yet unfound) dangers.
The EPA appears only happy to oblige. It has already wasted untold millions of taxpayer dollars trying (and failing) to find fracking dangers, but it recently requested $14 million to work with “partners” to “assess [new] questions,” as agency chief Lisa Jackson told Congress. She also wants cash to study the “environmental justice” impacts of fracking on disadvantaged communities.
That request sparked an understandable rebuke from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): “That seems to presume there is a [negative] impact,” she noted. “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to look for such impacts only if you discover there is a link between fracking and contaminated water first?”
Christopher Portier, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health, announced in late April that the Institute of Medicine would spend millions more to study “whether shale gas drilling poses a threat to public health.” The day of the announcement, he kicked off an all-expenses-paid two-day Washington “roundtable” on the issue, with luminaries from the public-health establishment on hand.
The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health announced that it’s launching a worker study — even though the safety challenges are little different than those the natural-gas industry has handled for decades.
The real goal of the anti-fracking complex? To gum the works.
In congressional testimony in May, activist Cornell professor Robert Howarth (whose work is funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation) demanded yet more studies to fill what he calls a “research gap” — and said that fracking be stopped until “experts” (i.e., scientists from the activist community) can “confirm” that it’s not harmful.
How much money will be wasted studying shale-gas extraction, which has been evaluated for years and shown to be safe?
The fracking revolution has fueled an energy boom, saving billions of dollars and boosting the fragile economy. New York, in particular, is just plain lucky that we have all these energy reserves.
But that innovation and economic advantage can be frittered away if ideologues’ scare campaigns prevail.
Jon Entine is a senior fellow at the Center for Health&Risk Communication and at STATS, both at George Mason University.