Fracking: Dangerous or Safe? Oh, Sorry, There’s a catch – Catch 22

Recently a peer-reviewed study on the effects of hydrolytic fracturing, more commonly called ‘fracking,’ on humans and animals was published in the journal NEW SOLUTIONS: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. It suggests that fracking may not be safe. It may release dangerous chemicals into the air, water and soil which lead to disease and death in livestock.

As readers of this blog know, I believe in following science where it leads and no further. This study does the same, namely it just suggests the connection. You see, under the laws passed with the assistance of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, fracking operations are exempt from federal laws on pollution and water usage among others. Additionally, the party of State’s Rights ensured that federal laws overrode all state laws passed dealing with these issues.

Of course the real problem is two-fold. First, we cannot hope to rationally discuss limits on fracking or the chemicals used for fracking unless we can demonstrate that these chemicals do harm. We can’t demonstrate that these chemicals do harm unless we can study their effects on livestock and humans. But, of course, we can’t study the effects of these chemicals because we can’t know what they are; that is a trade secret protected by intellectual property laws. This is a classic case of industry protecting itself from all liability by engaging in total secrecy. Even if we can show harm occurring near fracking sites, we cannot show that fracking is the cause without knowing what chemicals they use.

The second problem is the one that has plagued us for a long time, the shifting of costs upon the public of the future. As children we were taught that we needed to clean up after ourselves. Industry has received no such guidance. In fact, industry has been taught that it is better to leave a mess. It costs too much to clean up and that reduces the bottom line. So in the future, after the profits have been taken and the gas and oil industry have left the area, we may find severely polluted soil and water. We may have an incredible number of polluted sites to clean up and the tax payers may get stuck with the bill. We won’t know for quite a while.

We also need to acknowledge that a typical fracking operation in the U.S. uses about 4.5 million gallons of water. Even if most of it is recaptured, it probably won’t be fit for human or agricultural use. There are some attempts to reuse the water for other fracking operations. It is too soon to tell if this will result in a large-scale reduction in the amount of water used. Transportation costs may limit how much of the water can be reused.

Still, we know what is happening. We are given two magic words: jobs and economy. There is no doubt that the fracking boom is creating jobs and boosting the economy in various locales. The land owners who are leasing their land are usually getting a good boost in their income. Later, they may not be able to sell it, nor will their neighbors who may not have signed over drilling rights.

Actually there are three other magic words that make fracking even more seductive: cheap natural gas – very cheap. So for the moment, we have jobs, economy and cheap natural gas versus a big question mark. I’d say that the deck has been stacked.

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