You've heard the story before. Business finds valuable natural resource in pristine landscape. Business lobbies government to let it extract this resource and government looks the other way. Business extracts resource, makes lots of money and leaves devastated people, animals, communities and landscapes in its wake.
Will we ever change this script once and for all?
One of the newest versions playing out on our national stage involves the extraction of natural gas from deposits scattered throughout the United States. Using a new technology developed by Halliburton and other gas companies called "hydraulic fracturing," or fracking for short, the companies drill horizontally into rock to reach gas deposits using a mixture of water, sand and a blend of hundreds of chemicals. Of course, the companies that do this claim the technology is totally safe for people and the environment. Evidence indicates, however, that it is highly toxic, as the following links demonstrate:
Using the need for the United States to become energy independent to justify its actions, the Bush Administration gave the gas industry a boost in its Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted fracking from many environmental regulations. Gas extraction companies have been drilling wells across the United States in places such as New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado and cases of environmental destruction and pollution have been documented.
A quick search of the Internet led me to a 2007 report from the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Chaired by Edolphus Towns. The committee held a hearing on federal environmental and health regulations for oil and gas development in the U.S. The hearing summary included the following statement:
"Oil and Gas Development is Exempted from Certain Health and Environmental Protections. Certain aspects of oil and gas development are exempted from requirements in the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. For example, the Committee received testimony that a leading cause of water pollution in the Rocky Mountain west is storm water runoff from construction activities such as those associated with oil and gas development. However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted oil and gas development from the storm water runoff protections of the Clean Water Act."
Despite this hearing and other Congressional efforts to regulate fracking, gas extraction still goes on. A large gas deposit stretches through New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but it has until recently been too difficult and expensive to access. New technological advances in drilling techniques, coupled with the country's needs for energy sources other than oil, has now made the gas more accessible and gas extraction companies have already been drilling in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Since fracking activity started, contamination of local water sources has also happened in these states.
Environmentalists in New York have begun to fight plans to drill in that state, particularly in New York's watershed areas. If the water is contaminated there, the state will be forced to build a filtration plant, at a cost of billions of dollars, for the Catskills and Delaware water systems, two of the few systems in the nation that are currently totally unfiltered. These watershed areas provide clean drinking water for 8 million residents of New York City, as well as residents of other communities in New York State.
To add insult to injury, many of the chemicals used for fracking do not biodegrade, but actually accumulate and are impossible to completely filter out of any contaminated water (even with a multi-billion dollar filtration system). So far Governor David Paterson of New York has temporarily put a ban on issuing any drilling permits until an environmental review has been completed. Environmentalists and others in the state are hopeful that this ban will become permanent, at the very least in the threatened watershed areas.
Some Congressional Democrats have been fighting for new federal regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing for quite a while, but with little success. However, with a new administration in the White House and a Democratic majority in both Congress and the Senate, there is a window of opportunity to pass such regulations now. There is a bill in the House being offered by the House Energy and Commerce Committee that would require gas companies to reveal the chemicals used in fracking, which they are now exempt from doing, and would remove all other exemptions from environmental regulations the gas companies now enjoy. Earlier this month, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, agreed to review the EPA's position on hydraulic fracturing. However, passage of new legislation is not guaranteed by any means, as the gas drilling industry has already begun to lobby and put up a fight.
This is where I ask my readers to do what they can to fight for regulation of gas drilling. Contact your elected officials in Washington, D.C. and in your state, and ask them to support passage of the new bill when it is introduced. Write to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and request she support regulation of hydraulic fracturing. Tell your friends, neighbors and co-workers about this issue.
More importantly, however, I ask you: how can we stop this never-ending battle to protect our natural resources? How can we ensure that precious human energy, natural resources and funding support the development of clean, renewal energy sources rather than the same old fossil fuels that poison and pollute us all? What needs to change to make this a permanent reality?
I don't claim to have the answers, but just asking the questions could be a good start.