Fracking in Ohio

Listen to the fracking fanatics in Ohio and you are likely to hear lots about the economic possibility, but a whole lot less about its economic and environmental liabilities. Despite cavalier statements from boosters of this newly popular technique, there is every reason to be deeply concerned about the real costs, both economic and environmental, in the short- and long-term, of unrestricted fracking in our communities. Fracking has been associated with poisoning water resources, air pollution, plummeting property values and crushing truck traffic.  The enterprise is also associated with “human induced seismic activity” (in English, that would be “Earthquakes”) as the result of disposal of fracking waste fluids by underground injection, like recently occurred in the Mahoning Valley region.

Whether you support the industry or not, you should be concerned about how the state has prepared for the fracking boom. Governor Kasich has taken a strong public position about the need for robust safety standards, enforcement capacity, transparency on the chemicals being used in fracking, as well as the economic benefits to the citizens of Ohio from the extraction of natural gas and oil in the state. And NRDC has been actively engaged to help make sure that tougher laws deliver real protections of public health and safety when the state concludes its current regulatory revamp effort. But, the protections are not there yet.

Why does Ohio need tough, clear and enforceable standards, based on science and technology? A recent Wall Street Journal piece pops to mind as illustrative. It had nothing to do with fracking, or energy for that matter. It was about the Titanic. And in typical Journal fashion, the article was an attempt to blame government standards for the historic disaster. But the facts actually painted a cautionary tale about weak regulations and the failure to demand the safety that technology and science could deliver in the interests of business, health and safety. In short, the article said that the main reason for massive loss of life when the ocean liner sank was that outdated British regulations had not kept up with the changing size, speed, performance and nature of vessel traffic. Documents point back to a seminal moment in the Titanic’s construction when ship owners were deciding how many lifeboats to build into the vessel. Ultimately, they noted that the regulations did not require enough lifeboats to accommodate all the passengers and assure their safety; and accordingly, decided to only build up to the required minimum, rather than invest to meet the risks they knew they were taking on. The resulting disaster has become a metaphor for human failure, hubris and refusal to heed the facts.

I see similar things happening with state laws for fracking all over the country. Some states, like New York, have environmental review laws that create the time and process for a thorough review of where and how fracking can proceed (which is why there is a moratorium, which we support, while that process is engaged and completed in the state). But in most places, this stuff is already moving forward without appropriate oversight to keep up with the realities on the ground. That’s why these fights are so important---not only to ensure state of the art standards are put in place to protect the public health and safety, meet the risks of water and air pollution and prevent the despoliation of unique environments---but to do it in a timely manner, before the risks multiply or damage occurs. In many states, the regulations proposed by state governments fall well below what the industry itself considers appropriate and the American Petroleum Institute’s best practices would be an improvement over existing and proposed regulations, so let’s make them the legal threshold that everyone needs to meet in places like Illinois and Ohio. 

There is no shrinking from the facts: the fracking genie is out of the bottle. But that does not mean we should let him smash up the place. Governor Kasich has stated that his goal is for Ohio to set the highest standard for the extraction of natural gas and oil. We support that goal and are joining with communities and local groups to urge the ODNR and the state legislature to adopt state of the art, protective standards that will enforce recognized best practices that have been ignored in many states previously infected with gas fever. To start, that means transparency on what chemicals are being used in fracking fluids. (With reports of jet fuel, carcinogenic chemicals and a rogue’s gallery of toxics being used in the fracking process in other states, this is no small thing.) It also means proper waste water disposal, stringent requirements for the well casings that are essential to keeping fracking fluids out of water resources, safe setbacks from homes and schools, and ensuring that all Ohioans retain the ability to protect their property rights in a court of law. These are just a few of the many protections needed to protect families and communities. Putting the best safeguards in place does not interfere with economic gains — but promotes and protects a sustainable economy. Many of the best practices available to industry are profitable. Ignoring the need for protective standards means trading the illusion of economic activity for real environmental and community harm. And that’s not really in anyone’s best interest.