Fracking Demands Effective Safeguards for All

The national debate is widening over the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to tap natural gas from shale, with New Jersey moving to ban it while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo considers a plan to allow it in parts of the state.

Nationwide, state legislatures are wrestling with whether to allow this controversial and hazardous process, which can pose grave risks to workers, waters and wildlife.

Natural gas clearly has a role to play in our energy future—especially if it is used to replace dirty coal power. Energy efficiency and renewable energy, though, are the largest, cleanest, and cheapest untapped resources to meet our power needs, and must take the dominant role. 

NRDC will not support fracking, in New York state or anywhere else, unless we are convinced that local communities, watersheds and habitat are protected to the maximum possible extent from the risks it presents, and – just as critically – that state and federal authorities have the tools they need to enforce essential safeguards. As a New York Times editorial over the weekend put it – that means “the right rules must be in place first.” The stakes are too high for anything less.

At the state and federal levels, we're not there yet. Here's why.            

To extract gas through fracking, a well is drilled vertically, typically several thousand feet deep – and sometimes as deep as a mile - then cut horizontally beneath a bed of shale. Water is injected at high pressure to crack the shale and open up pockets of gas. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals, some of which are toxic or carcinogenic, to make what is called fracking fluid.

The process is destructive. A single well requires at least four acres of land to be cleared, plus access roads and equipment staging areas, as well as between 2.4 million and 7.8 million gallons of water.

After a well is fracked, between 10 percent and 40 percent of the fracking fluid returns to the surface, carrying toxic heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, high levels of salts and, in some cases, radioactive elements from deep underground.

In the eastern United States, this "produced water," as it's called, is usually then pooled in an impoundment pond and/or sent to wastewater treatment plants generally unequipped to deal properly with these pollutants. Because the fluid contains a lot of salt, it is sometimes sold to public work crews to be used to clear icy roads, leaving the harsh chemical residue to run off into nearby fields and streams.

All of this means that, even when fracking operations go well, they put our water at risk - underground, on the surface and at our tap - as well as plant and animal life that depends on clean water.

In drilling, moreover, accidents happen.

Last April, near Canton, Pa., a blowout gushed thousands of gallons of toxic fracking fluid into a nearby stream that fed Towanda Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River, the mother channel of the Chesapeake Bay. Three private wells were contaminated, the Environmental Protection Agency found, and we still don't know the damage done to affected rivers and streams.

More than 92,000 gallons of fracking fluid spilled out of a Killdeer, N.D., blowout last September. Two months earlier, seven rig workers were burned when a fracking well near Moundsville, W.Va., hit a methane pocket that sent flames raging 50 feet into the air. Within a few days of that, some 35,000 gallons of fracking fluid were released after a blowout outside of Pittsburgh.

Blowouts aren't the only problem. Tanks can rupture, equipment can fail, impoundment ponds can overflow or simply leak, fracking fluids can spill.

Fracking fluid is suspected of contaminating drinking water in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and other states where fracking is allowed. And two years ago, 17 cows died in Louisiana almost immediately after drinking water poisoned by a nearby fracking operation.

In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation has just issued an incomplete revised draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement proposing that the state open vast areas to fracking. The complete revised draft  is due by the end of the summer and an official public comment period will follow.

The state’s current proposal could result in applications to drill 1,600 wells per year, on average, in New York State alone, the DEC estimates.

The DEC is rightly suggesting that unfiltered watersheds for New York City and Syracuse be put off the table for frackers. DEC is also proposing to prohibit fracking in 16 additional public water systems around the state, as well as in floodplains, state parks, forests and wildlife areas.

But many questions remain outstanding. For example, are the requirements DEC is proposing for the rest of the state – where millions of New Yorkers rely on private wells – fully protective?

Clean drinking water is essential to life. We can't afford to put that at risk anywhere. It's simply too precious for that.

Sound governance must be grounded in fact. The DEC must ensure that critical questions are answered before moving forward with a proposal that would allow new drilling anywhere in New York State.

How, for example, can we protect private wells from the kind of damage besetting communities in Pennsylvania? What kind of baseline testing of underground aquifers must be required? Where are the requirements for seismic tests before drilling and water monitoring afterwards?

We also need comprehensive plans for dealing with the vast quantities of hazardous waste that fracking creates. Currently this industry isn't even bound by the provisions of cornerstone federal safeguards like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The industry has secured exemptions from these essential safeguards. And drilling wastes have also been exempted from New York State’s hazardous waste laws. This all needs to be fixed.

Even the best regulations in the world to protect against impacts from water and air pollution, wastewater generation and the like can’t address the separate, but equally critical, issue of community impacts.  Best technical practices won’t protect against massive influxes of truck traffic, out-of-state workers who place demand on community resources and the potential for industrialization of landscapes.  These impacts must be given the same level of scrutiny and evaluation, and the state should not move forward without a plan to address and prevent them.

NRDC – like many others across the state – is carefully reviewing the specifics of DEC’s proposal with an eye toward answering the ultimate question: will public health and the environment be protected for those New Yorkers living in areas where some drilling might one day be permitted?

But even if New York ultimately proposes the best possible rules, they will not be worth the paper they’re written on if the state doesn’t assure DEC the necessary resources to properly administer and enforce the program.

The rapid growth of fracking – roughly 75,000 wells have been drilled in just the past five years – means regulators across the country have been overwhelmed. The state of West Virginia, for instance, has just 12 inspectors to monitor some 60,000 wells. That won’t get the job done, as we’ve seen with tragic results.

As a member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, I understand the need for keeping drilling safeguards in step with industry advances. And I know, too, the necessity of making sure those we rely on to enforce needed protections have the resources they need to do the job.

To his credit, Gov. Cuomo has put together an advisory panel on hydraulic fracturing to address some of these issues. Two of my NRDC colleagues, Kate Sinding and Eric Goldstein, are on that panel. Both will advocate for assertive protections for all communities across the state and for aggressive oversight and enforcement of needed safeguards.

But let me be clear. Since our founding four decades ago, NRDC has stood up for fresh air, clean water and healthy habitat coast to coast. And we’ll continue to do just that.

Fracking is dangerous and it is destructive. It puts our workers, our waters, our air and wildlife at risk. NRDC will not support fracking - in New York State or anywhere else - unless we have done everything possible to address those risks.

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