It’s claimed that the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”—in which water, sand, and chemicals are pumped deep into the ground to free up and retrieve natural gas—contaminates drinking water. But the industry is sponsoring icky TV commercials showing how silly it is to think such a thing, since the gas lies far deeper underground than the water. Of course these spots leave out the inconvenient fact that waste chemicals and liquid natural gas and are stored aboveground as part of the process. And extensive reporting by ProPublica actually suggests that a more serious side effect may be air pollution.
But despite anecdotal evidence, in terms of hard science nobody really knows. Not surprisingly, the companies that engage in this form of drilling are reluctant to participate in state health department investigations, but more fundamentally, there hasn’t been much time in which to study hydraulic fracturing’s environmental and health effects. Used widely only in the past decade, for most of that time fracking has mostly fractured large states like Colorado, which have plenty of open land.
Reading reports like those at ProPublica in search of answers is an exercise in frustration, but getting familiar with the information that is available does reinforce the sense that industrial priorities lie anywhere but with public health. That opens up the whole question—so apropros in today’s political climate—of government regulation. The reason state rules govern these energy companies’ activities, and not federal regulations, is that the firms have won exemptions from the latter. Which chemicals are used in hydrofracking, for example, are allowed to remain company secrets, even though it’s precisely these chemicals that are implicated as health threats.
States are moving to require more disclosure, but new regulations like those that came into effect in Wyoming last year exempt from public disclosure any parts of the chemical stews that are trade secrets, which probably explains why the Petroleum Association of Wyoming found that the new rules “appear on the surface to be workable…[though] perhaps we will need to tweak.” Talk about damning with faint praise.
Without knowing what is, or may be, leaking into the environment, it’s virtually impossible to conduct health studies. Meanwhile the United States is turning into a big hunk of Swiss cheese, with some 33,000 wells dug in 2008 alone. When you add it all up, you get a pretty big energy source, one that may significantly reduce the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil, something Presidents have been calling for at least since Nixon. And if less need for foreign oil results in, oh, I don’t know, less war, won’t lives be saved? Sure they will. But will it be at the cost of lives and livelihoods lost at home to ruined health? Maybe. It’ll be a while before we know the price of all this drilling. And if certain interests win out, by that time, the entire U.S. regulatory apparatus will have been fractured into impotence.