WHATEVER HAPPENED to easy answers? Once we were told we could fix problems by waging war on poverty, crime, cancer and drugs. Turned out we couldn’t, and politicians have long since dropped the “war on…” metaphor without finding a replacement. Now we either negotiate solutions or pretend they don’t exist. Either way, it’s complicated.
Take the climate. You hear plenty of predictions about whether the winter that lies ahead will be another bitterly cold season. The predictions are accompanied by scoffing about how the winter of 2013-14 proves climate change isn’t real. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that for 2014, “The combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for January–August was… the third highest for this eight-month period on record.”Even if the Jet Stream does lock us in the deep freeze again this heating season, there’s some good news. The U.S. has huge supplies of natural gas and has increased oil production, which economists predict will hold down the costs consumers pay for energy.
One of the biggest factors leading to this boom is the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to squeeze gas out of the ground. Experts say it will make electricity cheaper–don’t hold your breath–and sustain the country’s economic growth.
Natural gas also burns more efficiently and spews less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, meaning we’ll release less of the gas most closely associated with global warming. Those who don’t believe the data showing human activities are partly responsible for a warming atmosphere will say: Who cares? But a majority of Americans accept that rapid climate change is happening and we should do something about it. A transition away from coal and oil to natural gas looks like a good solution, except there’s a catch.
The fracking process that captures the gas uses over a million gallons of water per well, often trucked to and from the well site in big vehicles on rural roads. The water is mixed with sand and a cauldron of chemicals so threatening that the gas drilling companies won’t tell anyone what’s in it. Then this mixture is pumped deep underground where it forces gas out of the rock and it is drawn to the surface.
Tests have revealed that among the chemicals used in fracking are substances known to cause cancer, birth defects and other human health problems. Supporters of drilling say these materials remain entombed deep beneath the surface of the earth. But that assumes the earth acts as an unbroken barrier able to bottle up the poisons forever. New research casts doubt on that theory. If the chemicals reach aquifers, our water supplies become toxic soup.
There’s also the problem of methane gas that escapes from fracked wells through faulty pipes. Methane is far more potent gas in the short run at heating our atmosphere. At the moment, then, using “cleaner” natural gas may be more harmful to the climate than burning coal and oil.
Columbia County doesn’t sit above the type of rock where drillers look for gas, though some towns in the county already have local moratoriums on fracking. Such bans have been approved by the state’s highest court, and Governor Cuomo and the legislature have imposed a temporary statewide prohibition on fracking until a long awaited health review is completed. As time passes, evidence of the threat from fracking only grows.
It might seem like we’ve dodged the threat from fracking, but that’s not true. Fracking represents a false promise–a simple-sounding solution to a complex problem. The costs of fracking will come back to haunt us and future generations with polluted water, land and air, in illness and death and in the costs of global warming. We taxpayers will shoulder the burdens when the frackers are long gone to new headquarters on foreign shores.
We’ll need fracked gas for a while longer to sustain our economy, but we don’t have to permit frackers to hide what they do or to escape paying for the real costs of this fuel, even though they will pass those costs on to us consumers. This is an industry that requires strict oversight because it has behaved badly in the absence of tough, enforceable regulations.
There’s a demonstration this weekend from noon to 2 p.m. on the Village of Chatham green. It’s part of a worldwide movement called Global Frackdown 2014. The people participating aren’t waging a war against cheap fuel, they’re reminding us that pinning our hopes on fracked gas is sucker’s bet.