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MARCH 2011: This new gas extraction method with the funny name is a serious threat to drinking water, air and health across the nation.

The Fracking Fuss
What it's about—and why you should care

Fracking is all over the news these days, but what exactly is it?
  1. A harmless way to get natural gas out of the ground.
  2. A fictional euphemism in a TV series for, well, you know what.
  3. The answer to global warming.
  4. None of the above.
If you answered B, you really know your popular culture. It was, indeed, an expletive used in Battlestar Galactica, as my business partner keeps reminding me. She can't help laughing every time I say the word.

But fracking in the sense of hydraulic fracturing, for which it has become shorthand, is no joke. This inadequately regulated method for extracting gas from rock can poison drinking water, pollute the air and put human health at risk. It also destroys entire landscapes.

In the oil and gas industry, it is all the rage.

What's the attraction? A new form of fracking (horizontal hydraulic fracturing), using deep L-shaped wells, lets gas drillers get at large deposits that were previously inaccessible, giving the companies a new lease on life. Where a short while ago they were facing dwindling gas reserves and questions about the future of their business, now they see a hundred-year inventory within their grasp.

Key to that inventory is the Marcellus Shale, a huge gas repository that runs along the Appalachians through West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The big fight over fracking is centered here because the New York City watershed and Delaware River Basin stand to be affected. This water supply serves over 15 million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia, Trenton and other areas.

I live in New York City, love my great-tasting tap water and prize the wild and beautiful lands from which it flows, just a couple of hours north of here. So I take this particular environmental issue very personally.

But it's not just a New York or East Coast issue. Fracking is happening around the country with ill effects for the people who live there and a rising sense, even in pro-drilling states like Texas, that better regulation is needed.

Current regulation is pathetic due to exemptions secured by the gas drilling industry from many major federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. As a result, gas drilling companies can disregard requirements that other industries have to follow. Among other things, in most places they do not have to identify the toxic chemicals they use in their operations, despite the risks those chemicals pose to drinking water.

The industry claims its chemical cocktails must be kept confidential because they're trade secrets. Maybe so, but gas companies seem more concerned about keeping their chemical formulas secret from the public—and the Environmental Protection Agency—than each other. Now, what purpose does that serve other than to block efforts by the EPA to trace drinking water contaminants back to the companies that used them?

Even when ordered to investigate the environmental impacts of fracking by Congress, the EPA is hobbled by industry and political pressure to narrow the scope of the investigation, as recently documented by The New York Times.

With the federal government's role limited, it has been largely left to the states to regulate gas drilling, which they are woefully unequipped to do, given their low staffing levels. Further, the agencies responsible for regulation are typically also responsible for promoting use of natural resources in the state and are often overly cozy with the companies they are supposed to regulate. You may remember this problem from the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico when the Minerals Management Service came under scrutiny for bungling its job.

Meanwhile, the gas industry is feeding us a storyline about how beneficial natural gas is, calling it a bridge to a clean energy future that will help us solve global warming. Not so fast. The rosy numbers underlying this claim tell only part of the story. When greenhouse gas emissions from the full gas production lifecycle are taken into account, the picture looks very different. According to a new analysis by the EPA, gas may be just 25 percent cleaner than coal—or less.

Gas companies aren't pushing fracking because it's beneficial—or even safe—for the environment. They're pushing it to make money—and why not? That's what they're in business for. But for that very reason, they can't be allowed to police themselves. It's a job that only government can do, and we, the public, need to insist on it before it's too late.

Please follow this issue as it unfolds on the NRDC Switchboard, support a comprehensive investigation by the EPA into the environmental impacts of fracking, and if you live in New York State, take action to help keep fracking out of the Catskill Park.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic



ACTOR/DIRECTOR MARK RUFFALO has been actively working with NRDC to raise awareness about the risks posed by fracking—especially in the New York City watershed area where Mark lives with his family.



Gasland still
WORTH A WATCH: Josh Fox's Academy Award-nominated film, Gasland, mixes real-life stories, a bit of sleuthing and documentary evidence to provide an entertaining yet serious look at fracking across the U.S. Josh didn't just make the film and move on. He's been educating people about the issue for the past year and recently traveled to Washington with Mark Ruffalo and NRDC staffers to speak to members of Congress about it. You can buy the DVD or rent it from Netflix.



HOW FRACKING IS DONE. Horizontal fracking involves drilling deep into the earth for up to two miles, then turning a corner and drilling horizontally under farmland, lakes, communities, what have you. When the well is complete, vast quantities of water and chemicals are injected into it at high pressure to cause explosions along the horizontal section. These explosions fracture the surrounding shale and free the gas trapped in it. Afterwards, much of the fracturing fluid returns to the surface as wastewater, along with various toxic substances picked up from the shale, including radioactive material.



Buttermilk Falls
BUTTERMILK FALLS in the Catskills, above the Marcellus Shale. Fracking proposed for this area threatens New York City's water supply—and the landscape whose wild beauty inspired the Hudson River School of painters.

Resources


The New York Times
Gas Well Water Hits Rivers
Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All
Pressure Limits Efforts to Police Drilling
Natural Gas and Polluted Air (video)

NRDC Switchboard
Gas Industry Needs to Clean Up Its Act
Incidents of Drinking Water Contamination

NRDC
Protecting NYers from Marcellus Shale Drilling

Pro Publica
Climate Benefits of Gas May Be Overstated
Experts Challenge Safety of Vertical Drilling
State Regulators Spread Too Thin

PBS
The Price of Gas (video)

The Huffington Post
Fracking Pollution in Water in Pennsylvania

Catskill Mountainkeeper
Drilling Isn't Safe



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.