In papers everywhere we hear arguments such as the one that appeared recently in the Rochester (NY) Business Journal, in an article by economist Raymond J. Keating, under the heading “N.Y. is missing out on economic opportunity.”
Keating wrote, “Environmentalists are claiming that hydraulic fracturing threatens groundwater supplies and are using anecdotal evidence to support their claims. Yet years of evidence have demonstrated that the fracking process is safe.”
This is not just misleading; it’s artful misuse of the language. Or, as my mother would have put it in her habitually blunt way, it’s a lie.
And Keating knows it, as do all the other industry-friendly experts perpetrating this carefully constructed framing of the issue and the lazy or stupid journalists who regurgitate it.
It’s easy to rebut such patently false claims. They would be laughable if the gas and oil drilling industries hadn’t been so successful in lobbying Congress and the Executive Branch and in advertising to an unsuspecting public. The industry is spending tens of millions of dollars annually on these campaigns, and mainstream media for the most part just incuriously publishes or airs what’s in industry press releases or what comes from the mouths of industry spokespeople.
To pick apart just the two sentences quoted above: First, Keating, like all the industry insiders and the politicians in their pockets, uses “environmentalists” as a pejorative. (But for heaven’s sake, if you’re not an environmentalist, you’re an idiot; we all share the environment and can’t live without a healthy one!) That aside, Keating and his ilk are lumping a whole lot of people who’d never identify themselves as “environmentalists” under the heading. Many distinguished scientists in many fields — engineering, geology, physics, biology, hydrology, chemistry, medicine, health — from numerous universities and non-industry-tied scientific organizations are calling for a moratorium on drilling while its effects on health and nature are studied further.
They, as well as regular folks who are living with the effects of horizontal fracturing on their own drinking water supplies and others who care enough to have educated themselves on the subject, have documented evidence that fracking and the entire drilling and extraction processes involved in it can poison groundwater. It can poison, and has poisoned, lakes, rivers and streams whence communities draw drinking water and food supplies.
Second, Keating and his industry-tied allies use the industry line that fracking has been around for years and is safe. I’m not always as blunt as my mom, so I’ll say kindly that this is disingenuous.
Slickwater high-volume horizontal fracturing for gas is a relatively new technique. Vertical fracking has been around for decades, but that is not the process being pushed for New York State’s Marcellus and Utica Shales, nor the process being used in Pennsylvania and other states at present.
Horizontal fracking is a very different process from vertical fracking, and involves much more invasive engineering (and chemical stews) through unstable shale rock, where the natural fracturing makes it easy for contaminants to migrate in seconds from deep below normal groundwater supplies.
Last I knew, safe drinking water was made up of hydrogen, oxygen, and some sodium and other trace minerals. Among the hundreds of poisonous chemicals used in the horizontal fracking process are Acfrac CR-4000D (a viscoscifier and known carcinogen), ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, Poly-Plus (a friction reducer used in fracturing, and a known carcinogen), Zytel (fracturing resin, also a known carcinogen), HAI-85M Acid Inhibitor (corrosion inhibitor, another known carcinogen), O-600-W (corrosion inhibitor, carcinogen), toluene, and numerous other endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and carcinogens.
The process also releases naturally occurring heavy metals and radioactive materials that should best be left deep underground undisturbed. All this nasty stuff can easily end up in drinking water supplies, either during the fracturing (of already unstable, fractured shale rock) or later, when the toxic wastewater comes back up and has to be sequestered somewhere or sent to some kind of treatment facility (that doesn’t yet exist) capable of purifying it to the drinking standards you want your loved ones to be imbibing.
But the gas and oil industries are exempt from having to disclose what chemicals they use. And they are still exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other protective regulations, more than five years after Cheney-Bush handed them those exemptions.
If they have nothing to hide, and there is no danger, why do they keep the ingredients of their toxic fracking stews a secret? Why does the public not know what’s in them? How can Keating or anyone else claim it’s “safe” if we don’t know what they’re using? Do we want New York to be the next Gulf? Do we want to just trust the drilling companies to do the right thing, as we seemed to trust BP to manage a spill without adverse consequences?
Furthermore, do New Yorkers want their beautiful state turned into an industrial zone, a la eastern Colorado, huge swaths of Wyoming, much of Texas and Louisiana, and West Virginia? Take a drive to Northeastern Pennsylvania and see what the countryside looks like just a few years after horizontal fracking began there.
Well over half of these United States are in peril from fracking. This is simply nuts. It’s not a local or regional, but a national issue (international now, as big gas deposits have been located, and in some cases are already being developed, in Poland, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, in Canada, China, and India. (Japan and other countries are buying into gas-drilling rights in the USA and elsewhere.)
In the case of Raymond J. Keating, he played his hand with a biased, unsubstantiated article indicating that not only is he an anti-environmentalist, he is shilling for the gas industry. Not surprising from a man who is chief economist of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, an organization that has worked for the tobacco industry and has a history of attacking environmental laws, regulations and proposals. But it has a very low profile.
That is also the case with many of the opinion pieces and indeed many of the “articles” being published in many mainstream media these days. When reading about drilling, be sure to consider the source. Is the scientist quoted funded by industry? Is the professor? Or is he or she truly independent? Sometimes it takes a little digging to determine this.
If you’re reading such an article in a business journal like the one in which Keating’s piece was published, think about these things:
Does any ethical business community think profits are worth any risk to people’s health, property values (ask a few dozen Pennsylvanians how much their fracked properties are worth now), communities, and way of life?
What risks would this business community find acceptable? What losses would it be able to live with, to get whatever benefits may come?
One life, three lives, six mothers, four fathers, 12 children? One stream? Three ponds? Twenty-five homes in your town being delivered water daily by a gas company-provided truck? Forty-two calves and 17 lambs born deformed? Three human babies born fine but suffering environmentally caused (as opposed to genetic) cancers four or seven or 11 years from now?
The tourism industry? How many wineries? How many orchards? The entire food supply? Ten roads needing repaving yearly rather than every five years? Property values plummeting drastically (but perhaps offset in the shorter term by the higher rents and more hotel bill taxes collected, thanks to the many out-of-town workers who arrive to do the drilling work)? One extra rape a year, or three, or six, thanks to those out-of-town guys who have a lot of pent-up frustration because they’re living a transient life working in an inhospitable industry? How many worker deaths?
What bias does the commentator bring to the article or story you’re reading, listening to, or watching? Where does that person live? There’s a veritable revolving door between government and industry, with many former government officials or civil servants now lobbying for the gas companies, just as with military contractors. Not surprisingly, I learned that Raymond J. Keating, who supports low or no taxation for gas and oil extraction companies, lives on Long Island, where shale-gas drilling is not an issue (although that island has its own share of watershed and other environmental problems).
It’s important to read critically. Ask yourself these and other questions about those who are pushing to frack, baby, frack. And then get educated a little more, and fight back if you decide these risks are not worth it.
But be prepared to be labeled an “environmentalist.” Maybe, like me, you’ll wear that label proudly.
Maura Stephens is a writer who lives in central New York State, the spleen of the Marcellus Shale. She is writing a book, “Frack Attack: Fighting Back,” about the ordinary people who are fighting to save their communities from hydraulic fracturing.