I was cooking a meal recently at my home in Denver, Colorado on my natural gas stove when my mind drifted to the ongoing debate about fracking.
You've got to love irony.
Despite the comfort and warmth natural gas provides for many of us, here are the cold facts. Like my family, about 61% of homes in the United States utilize natural gas. Meanwhile, since the 1940's, 1.2 million wells have been fracked in at least 32 states. But many of us, including myself, are skeptical. We like the comfort and convenience of natural gas, but is fracking safe for our communities and our environment?
Given the rapid growth of fracking, especially in recent years, the EPA will release a report later this year that will take a look at its impact on public health as well as recommend best practices for the industry.
We all want to know: Can we develop this natural resource responsibly? Can we ensure regulations are on the books that protect everyone, and not just the bottom line of an industry with very deep pockets?
Colorado is arguably one of the main battlegrounds that embody this debate. On TV, there's been a constant stream of ads promoting the use of "clean burning natural gas" and its economic benefits. Of course, these sleek pieces also make dire predictions about what will happen if more regulations are placed on the industry.
The PR onslaught is in response to a lot of fracking action in Colorado. Within recent months:
- 11 proposed measures related to fracking were slated for the November ballot, but were subsequently withdrawn after Governor John Hickenlooper, Congressman Jared Polis (the primary proponent of anti-frack initiatives) and industry representatives reached a compromise.
- The governor sued Longmont over its voter-approved moratorium. It was subsequently dropped.
- Due to industry pressure, Congressman Polis gave up on his ballot measures that would have granted more local control over fracking.
- In one of the most expensive ballot initiatives in state history, voters in the City of Loveland rejected the idea of a moratorium on fracking, allowing the drilling practice to be regulated at state and federal levels.
- 19 prominent oil and gas companies with interests in Colorado wrote a letter to Hickenlooper that deplored proposed legislation that would have given local officials greater authority to regulate fracking.
In other states such as New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California, environmentalists and industry representatives are at similar loggerheads regarding the controversial practice.
Fracking opponents have offered many reasons why they'd like to see the practice eliminated: ground water contamination, depletion of fresh water, undisclosed chemical additives in drilling fluids, methane and air quality impacts and earthquakes, among other concerns. Fracking proponents point out the following: water usage is minimal (13% of Colorado's water was used for fracking in 2012), chemical additives are disclosed in many states, the alleged smaller carbon footprint of emissions of natural gas versus coal, fossil fuel independence and of course, economic and employment benefits.
It may be argued that more regulations would also hinder companies who are acting ethically and abiding by the rules. The desired result for the public and the legislatures is not to prevent industry growth or paralyze it. Rather, the desired result is to strike a balance -- protecting public health while fostering responsible natural gas extraction.
Meanwhile, we can't ignore the fact that many state regulatory agencies -- and arguably the EPA -- are underfunded. If we enact more fracking regulations, are we willing to increase funding to these vital agencies so that they can keep close tabs on the industry? Remember BP's Deep Water Horizon spill. Strong laws were on the books, but no one was around to enforce them.
So does the possibility of "sane" fracking exist? I believe so.
I believe common sense measures can address some environmentalists' concerns and provide the industry some credibility while the EPA wraps up its comprehensive study. We should:
- Regulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act to ensure the public's right to clean drinking water. I know of no other industry that can push millions of gallons of fluid into the ground and not be subject to these landmark environmental acts. The "Halliburton" exclusion should be removed. Period.
- Require that all fracking fluids be disclosed prior to drilling and a tracer element included in every fracked well. Many states already require this but have a clause for "trade secrets" in the current iteration of their laws. Transparency will help companies gain the public's faith and prevent inclusion of hazardous materials.
- Allow communities "self-determination" (the ability for a local government to ban, limit or regulate fracking within their jurisdiction). If a community can leverage zoning laws to control growth and industry, they should be allowed to enact rules governing a highly intensive industry like fracking. In many states, like Pennsylvania and New York, the courts have determined that communities have that right.
- Fracking should be set back at least 1,000 feet from residential homes, schools, hospitals and other inhabited areas.
- Groundwater sampling should be required in any drilling/fracking operation before, during and after each frack event. This is in accordance with the EPA's preliminary recommendations.
Unlike the use of a pesticide like DDT in the 1970's, fracking is not going anywhere anytime soon. Like myself and my family, too many Americans are addicted to the use of natural gas.
Why? Let's be honest: We lack viable alternatives and infrastructure.
This is not to say we should give up on the pursuit of a comprehensive renewable energy plan. We should move towards living a carbon neutral life. The brave new world of climate change is already before us: We must act now or we will become a victim to our addiction.
But for now, we need to work with what we have. We need solutions for both issues -- renewable energy and fossil fuels. We have to do this in order to maintain an adequate standard of living and control energy prices so that we don't kill our pocketbooks or the economy. We don't want energy shortages. We have to be realistic while moving toward a more realistic direction.
While we transition to a clean energy market, let's demand transparent, responsible fracking and properly regulate it so that our public health and our communities are not put in danger. Then, next time I fire up the stove, I won't feel like I'm robbing the future of our world because of convenience.
None of us wants to carry that guilt. We need to get our act together today.