What risks does hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, pose to human health and our environment? How has the fracking industry gained such power and influence in the United States? And how can we stop it? These are the questions tackled by longtime public interest advocate Wenonah Hauter in Frackopoly. Click here to order the book now with a donation to Truthout!
The effects of fracked oil and gas — in terms of air and water quality and health impacts — are felt most by the poor and communities of color. Public interest advocate Wenonah Hauter outlines strategies to stop fracking and rein in Big Oil.
The following is a Truthout interview with Wenonah Hauter, author of Frackopoly.
Mark Karlin: Why do you state that “fracking looms as the environmental issue of our times”?
Wenonah Hauter: Fracking touches every aspect of our lives — from our global climate to our air, water and food. It pits the largest and most powerful corporate interests — Big Energy and Wall Street — against people and the environment. It’s a long-term struggle that we must win if we are to preserve the Earth’s ecosystems for generations to come.
Fracking for oil and natural gas affects local front line communities, threatening the health and well-being of the more than 15 million people who live within a mile of a fracking operation. Their air is poisoned from the toxic emissions associated with both fracking and the processing operations that are built near fracking rigs.
But, the ecological and public health threats extend much further. Vital aquifers are put at risk for generations to come from toxic fracking fluid and the unleashing of hydrocarbons and other toxic substances deep underground. Fracking uses 50 times more water than conventional drilling, leading to a tremendous surge in the production of poisonous wastewater. On average, the oil and natural gas industry produces 10.5 billion gallons of wastewater per day that is contaminated with dangerous chemicals like benzene and toulene.
Deep well disposal of a large percentage of this oil and gas wastewater is causing a significant rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma and many other states. The surge in fracked oil and gas brings with it many other problems. For instance, mining the silica sand used in fracking operations is wreaking havoc on rural communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. Oil trains have exploded in many states, killing and injuring innocent people and polluting the atmosphere.
How did the pro-fracking lobby become so powerful?
Beginning in the industry’s earliest days, the largest oil and natural gas interests gained monopoly control of the industry, heavily influencing the political decisions made about energy. A complex series of events allowed the progeny of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and a few other large energy companies to conspire against our nation’s antitrust laws or to actually conspire to escape the monopoly laws that other companies were subject to. They played a major role in rigging our political system in their own favor, so that they have benefited from subsidies and tax breaks and have even dictated how our tax dollars are spent for energy-related research. Along with other selfish interests, they facilitated the creation of a juggernaut of polluters and other greedy economic forces that dominate the media, educational institutions and the government, promoting laissez-faire economics. The entrenched position of the oil and gas industry in politics and the economy and its privileged status under the law, have given it an iron grip on public policy.
We know that fracking has a rippling toxic impact locally, but what is its effect on climate change?
Scientific evidence continues to mount about the ways that fracking is intensifying and hastening the climate crisis. Methane — the main component of natural gas — is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the first 20 years after it’s emitted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that, pound for pound, methane traps 87 times more heat than CO2 in the first two decades after it’s emitted, making it much more dangerous in the period that we are living in when we must sharply decrease emissions to halt the worst of climate chaos.
Switching to natural gas will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions during this crucial time frame for stopping runaway climate disruption. Although burning natural gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, the leakage of methane during the process of drilling, fracking, processing and transporting of gas to power plants makes fracking a severe risk to our climate. EPA has greatly underestimated leaks, and while the Obama Administration has released regulations to reduce methane emissions, all existing fracked wells, oil and drilling operations and the supporting infrastructure have been grandfathered in.
What impact does fracking have on environmental injustice?
Drilling, fracking and the building and operation of related infrastructure — from pipelines and compressor stations to refineries and power plants — is creating more environmental injustice in communities of color, indigenous communities and in low-income areas. Community and youth groups, along with the Center for Biological Diversity have sued the City of Los Angeles for its pattern of discrimination in allowing weaker environmental protection in locations where the majority of residents are people of color, like in South Los Angeles.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ oil refinery in South Philly is another example of the disproportionate impact on people of color and those with low incomes. The facility refines fracked oil, delivered by crude oil trains that snake through and park within densely populated neighborhoods. Within a one-mile radius of this polluting refinery, which is responsible for 68 percent of all industrial air pollution in Philadelphia, 71 percent of residents are people of color and 32 percent live below the poverty line. People of color are more than twice as likely to live in the blast zone of an oil bomb train than white people.
In fact, an executive at Range Resources recently attracted heat for implying that the company only fracks near low-income communities. Terry Bossert, Range’s vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, had to issue an apology after suggesting that the company avoids putting wells near big, presumably wealthy homes. While Bossert issued an apology, many in the environmental justice community were not amused.
North Dakota Native Americans have suffered in multiple ways from the pollution caused by the drilling and fracking of hundreds of wells and the building of associated infrastructure. Several Native American nations and others are organizing against Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,170-mile oil pipeline that will stretch from North Dakota into Illinois. Planned for construction near tribal land, it would pass near their burial grounds and go under the Missouri River, an important source of drinking water.
A Clarke University study on fracking and environmental injustice found that in the heavily fracked state of Pennsylvania, poverty is highly associated with fracking. In Pennsylvania and many other states, fracking is taking place in rural agricultural areas where farmers have an income of under $19,000 a year. Decades of bad farm policies have made it impossible for small or mid-size farmers to make a decent living, leaving them vulnerable to the false promises made by the industry when it seeks mineral leases. Simply put, these rural communities have become sacrifice zones to the oil and gas industry and its thirst for profits.
What are some of the more successful grassroots efforts to locally prevent or restrict fracking?
Across the nation, there are literally thousands of grassroots groups working to stop the onslaught of fracking. Our diverse and broad-based movement has had so many victories — from a ban on fracking in New York and a moratorium in Maryland, to the recent victory in Florida where legislation was stopped that would have fast-tracked fracking. Over the past few years, more than 500 communities across the nation have passed measures to stop fracking, and progress continues to be made at the local level.
Just last month, Alameda County, California passed a ban on drilling and fracking. Meanwhile, activists across the country are battling to stop destructive infrastructure projects associated with fracking for oil and gas, and there have been many victories stopping irresponsible projects like pipelines, compressor stations, power plants and liquefied natural gas facilities, that would set us on the road to another 40 years of fossil fuel dependence.
Another testament to the political power that the movement has built is the fact that fracking became a critical issue in this year’s battle over the Democratic presidential nomination. In addition, polling shows that in stark contrast to a few years ago, more Americans oppose fracking than support it. Our movement did not let the mainstream media’s silence and its disregard for the truth about drilling, fracking and the building of infrastructure prevent us from speaking truth to power. Instead, we created our own ways of communicating with large numbers of people and completely changed the public dialogue. Even with Big Oil and Gas spending millions on propaganda ads about fracking and natural gas, polls show that a majority of Americans now oppose it. That is a tribute to our movement.
Our movement is unstoppable and we are moving forward together. We will not be satisfied with minor tweaks or half measures, and we cannot be bought by the powerful interests working against us. We are committed to the vision of a world that is just and fair, powered by renewable energy and energy efficient. Our movement’s energy goals are clear, and we will take it to the next level, growing it, expanding the communities where we are working for energy justice, and building our political power so that we can ban fracking and close down the dirty energy industry. In the process, we will build the political power to create a democracy that works for everyone. When one of us wins, we all win and celebrate each other’s work and victories.
You describe a “way forward” in reining in fracking. Can you name some key strategies?
Our movement must develop its own leaders and elect them to office. The solution is not to support weaker and weaker policies, bending over backward to negotiate and accommodate the fossil fuel industry. We need leaders who are willing to fight for the policies that will really address climate change and all of the other ills associated with the use of dirty energy.
Building the political power necessary to dramatically change our political system requires organizing around bold solutions that inspire people to become involved and demand action. People are tired of fighting for the politically convenient and are ready to organize to win the world they want for their children and grandchildren. When people win a victory that addresses a problem that seemed insurmountable, they are motivated to work harder to achieve even bigger goals. This is how long-term change takes place — not by cutting deals and compromising with polluters.
We must move beyond obscure financial schemes like pollution trading that ultimately benefit Wall Street, to a strategy that requires polluters to stop profiting from using the air and atmosphere as a private waste dump. The stark fact remains that we are not anywhere near where we need to be on transitioning to clean energy and energy efficient technologies.
In 2015, only 5.5 percent of our electricity came from wind, solar and geothermal technologies. Unfortunately, while renewable energy is growing, natural gas generation is growing much faster. Turning things around will require reorienting the way we produce and use energy. We cannot depend on the market alone to move us forward. We must organize at all levels of government to make the changes that are necessary to halt climate chaos and to protect communities. A few of the policy changes we must fight for are to:
- Keep fossil fuels in the ground and stop building the infrastructure that will support another 40 years of fossil fuel use and abuse.
- Remove all oil and gas industry exemptions from environmental laws, along with subsidies and tax breaks.
- Eliminate all policy mechanisms that favor natural gas and other dirty energy sources over clean technologies.
- Require the federal government to use its resources to develop a plan for stopping climate change and transitioning to clean energy.
- Establish an ambitious mandate (a combination of federal and state requirements) for 100 percent clean energy that includes deploying and incentivizing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
- Enact strong fuel-efficiency standards and mandates for using advanced-technology vehicles and make massive investments in public transportation.