Fracking might frack us all

ScientistIt seems increasingly likely that some amount of hydraulic fracturing to liberate shale-bound natural gas reserves will be approved in New York state.  The specific rules around that, and in what areas it will be approved, are still being determined.  The EPA, who faces the reality that fracking is an issue in many states and that the environmental imacts of the technique are not necessarily bound by state lines, is increasingly looking to New York as a model for if and how fracking should be allowed.

There seems little doubt that the energy resources recovered through fracking would go a long way toward solving our short term energy problems.  Economically, it makes good sense.  Companies believe they can make money doing it, and the country can use the energy.  If it were as simple as all that, no one would really be against it.

Yet there is a niggling little concern that fracking compromises underground aquifers, causes earthquakes, and generates copious amounts of polluted wastewater that will be released into the environment.  And therein lies the rub.

The trick here is that the science is not remotely settled.  This has not stopped groups assuring us that it is 100% safe and they would gladly have their children frolic in fracking wastewater retention ponds, as well as their counterparts assuring us that permitting any fracking would result in having hot and cold running fire taps in every kitchen.

The trouble is, it’s complicated.  There are no generalized models for how fracking fluids or methane will migrate through the Earth’s crust when things are disturbed thousands of feet below ground.  Scientists are just beginning to study this, and the answers won’t be known for some time.

Even when and if the science community reaches consensus on an answer, it’s likely to be disputed by whichever group is proved wrong.  The global warming debate has taught us that the political and popular perception is that ultimately scientific conclusions are something that can be voted on.

The only sane way to proceed is an evaluation of the risks on each side.  If we don’t frack, we may face shortages of natural gas.  This might drive up energy prices, push for investment in alternative energy sources, increase global competition and tension over foreign oil supplies, or drive us to increasingly rely on dirty domestic coal for power.

If we do frack, we may face permanent pollution of potable water supplies.  Fresh water shortages are already predicted to be the next major natural resource crisis.  There may also be unpredictable damage to wildlife ecosystems that could ultimately threaten food supplies and human health as well.

In comparing these two risks, it seems clear that not fracking exacerbates risks we are already dealing with.  Meanwhile, fracking introduces lots of unknown risks—unknown risks with long term, widespread, dire, and potentially irrecoverable consequences.  In essence, we are choosing between the known and the unknown.

The conservative position here is clearly to favor known risks.

Besides, we’ve seen this play out too many times before.  We were assured the risks of industrial pollution were localized and minimal.  Then the Cuyahoga River caught fire, Los Angeles was lost in a haze of smog, and the northeast was drenched by acid rain.  These were not minor inconveniences or local hazards.  These were widespread ecological disasters with definitive and demonstrable negative effects on human health.  And the economic costs to recover from them have been, and continue to be, enormous.

Fracking may well be safe.  I don’t know.  You don’t know.  The politicians and energy companies don’t know.  And neither do the environmentalists or the EPA.  The critical point being, are we willing to risk being wrong?  Does it make sense that a society, currently with their hair on fire over the prospect of passing debt on to their grandchildren, is willing to casually risk passing land without potable water or farmable land on to those same kids… for the sake of lower heating bills?

Frack with caution. Do it for the children.

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