Upstate New York: a land of rolling hills and peaceful valleys largely forgotten by its downstate neighbors, as well as the 21st century information economy. Recently, the region of my birth has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate – something to which it is not accustomed. The reason for said attention? Hydraulic Fracturing – a method by which water, sand, and chemicals are pumped under high pressure deep into the ground, with the goal of extracting natural gas.
At first blush, fracking (as it is known) seems quite attractive. Natural gas burns more cleanly in power plants than does coal, and can be used to heat homes in place of oil or propane. Furthermore, the gas is abundant in the Marcellus Shale formations along the east coast of the Unites States – particularly in New York and Pennsylvania. Fracking advocates argue that increased drilling will make the country more energy independent, and will create high paying jobs in economically depressed rural areas. These advocates, unsurprisingly, tend to be landowners and farmers who stand to gain economically from gas leases, as well as the gas companies and their political proxies.
Naturally, there is another side to the argument. Opponents of fracking worry about air and water pollution, property values, and destruction of habitat. They tend to be those who live near potential fracking sites but do not stand to benefit directly from gas leases. The social differences between the two sides has led to much of the animosity surrounding this issue – for example, many pro fracking advocates view anti-frackers as relatively wealthy “townfolk” who don’t need the money that gas leases can provide.
So, whom to believe? I certainly agree that energy independence and economic stimulus are both critically necessary. However, I tend not to believe large corporations when they assure me that their seemingly risky operations are perfectly safe and self-regulated – see Lehman Brothers 2008, and BP, 2011. If fracking is so safe, why is it banned in France and in the New York City watershed? Why is fracking exempt from EPA regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act? I don’t yet know whom to believe, but I do know that there has not yet been a reasoned, national debate about this issue. When there is, I hope that some sensible but not overly restrictive regulations will allow fracking to continue – but only if it is in the broader public interest, not just in the interest of gas companies, landowners, and pipe workers.
To me, this means that fracking should only continue if it will not pollute ground water or release unacceptable levels of methane and other gases into the air. I am a long way from a tree hugging environmentalist, but I do believe that we should not sacrifice the long term health of our environment – we only get one – for the short term health of our collective bank balance. I hope that fracking will help both of these problems by creating jobs and replacing coal with natural gas, but I am not convinced that gas companies will choose to implement higher cost (less harmful) procedures unless forced to do so. Without more regulation, self or otherwise, fracking will continue to be seriously harmful to air and water quality, property values, and habitats. The situation in Dimrock, PA and in many other places is ample evidence of this. I do believe that such an abundant natural resource should be exploited for both national and local gain, just not in a way that is a bonanza for gas companies and a disaster for everyone else.