Drill Happy

“Fracking” for Natural Gas Is Not a Good Transitional Fuel to Renewables

There are many reasons why you wouldn’t want companies extracting natural gas by hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) near your home. As Pennsylvania residents unlucky enough to have drilling operations open shop next door so poignantly describe in this issue, it means living with constant, sleep-disrupting noise and breathing noxious fumes thanks to the massive diesel trucks that accompany the operations. But what’s going on beneath the surface is even more unsettling. Hydraulic fracturing involves millions of gallons of water being injected at high pressure, along with a mixture of thousands of chemicals, into rock shale formations to get at the gas. This poses a grave worry to drinking water supplies (there are 3,751 such horizontal wells in Pennsylvania alone), made worse by the fact that gas companies undertaking such fracking are exempt from most of the major environmental laws that might protect consumers, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

It hasn’t been easy to prove a definite fracking-to-contaminated-water link, in part because many homeowners who experienced problems made non-disclosure settlements with gas companies. In New York, where fracking is under consideration and the subject of intense controversy, there are efforts to provide a buffer zone to protect watersheds, parks and other sensitive areas if fracking is allowed. There is also a large, vocal coalition of groups calling for fracking to be banned in the state altogether.

Environmental groups and citizens at large have become aware that natural gas—particularly when it is released via fracking, which is most of the time—is not some not-so-bad transitional fuel until renewables get up and running. In fact, one of the worst aspects of the gas companies’ plans to frack as much as one-fifth of the U.S. is the way that would completely derail any transition to clean energy, making giant swaths of the country uninhabitable, creating massive lagoons of chemically tainted and radioactive waste water and releasing huge quantities of methane, a global warming gas that’s far worse than carbon dioxide.

Filmmaker Josh Fox, who wrote and directed the Emmy award-winning documentary Gasland, and is interviewed in this issue, is ramping up his efforts to alert the public that fracking is not safe before further damage is done. He’s also working on a followup to his film, Gasland 2, which he tells E will look not only at the fracking fight in states like New York and Pennsylvania, but at the political maneuverings and lobbying dollars dedicated to protecting gas drilling at all costs.