TIME magazine says that the biggest environmental issue of 2011 in the U.S. was hydraulic fracturing.
That pronouncement comes despite the fact that climate disruption is causing more frequent freakish weather and in 2011 alone broke almost 3000 U.S. weather records, including 11 separate weather disasters that cost over a billion dollars each in damage. That’s on top of $14 billion in climate disruption-related damage in the last decade.
In the face of all that, fracking’s rise to preeminence says something important. Actually, it says a lot of things.
Shale gas exploration is changing the face of Penn’s Woods as wells are drilled, roads carved, and pipelines laid. The change is jarring. If a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a Power Point presentation with a book’s worth courtesy of Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Hanna. The impacts of Pennsylvania’s new industry will accumulate across two thirds of the state, and need to be understood.
Incidents and accidents during the course of this heavy industrial activity are inevitable, and their environmental and public health consequences can be severe. Strong government oversight is a must, and we’re not there yet.
Compressor stations and other equipment associated with drilling and sending gas to market can cause severe local air pollution unless best available control technologies are required. Poor drilling practices and leaky pits threaten groundwater and drinking water wells. In Wyoming, those problems and hydraulic fracturing itself have caused chemical and methane pollution of groundwater, though the particulars of the case -- drilling depths in particular -- don't appear to be analogous with Pennsylvania. Disposal of drilling wastewater in deep injection wells is suspected as the cause of earthquakes.
There are fears that methane emissions from fracking will aggravate climate disruption, though a number of studies have contradicted the study that initially raised that alarm, with more studies coming. Still, the essential truth is that methane emissions from shale gas production and transport are significant. Capturing that gas makes economic sense. The technologies to do that should be mandated, and methane emissions from gas production and transport should be carefully measured, minimized, and scrupulously regulated.
And there is the nagging, complex, and heart-breaking case of Dimock, and tap water set on fire.
With gas use on the rise, hydraulic fracturing is not going anywhere. Whether it remains the top environmental issue in the U.S. is another matter.
A commitment to best practices and continuous improvement in both regulation and driller/pipeline company practices is critically important. Industry transparency is needed on chemical use and practices, not facile “all-is-well” statements, or worse yet, psy-ops.
Cumulative impacts must be studied and understood; and those results baked into regulation for drilling and pipeline development.
There is, underlying all of this, a very basic need to have a strong commitment to science and the most stringent safeguards. There is a high dread to risk ratio around fracking that helped propel it to the top of TIME’s list. What we know about fracking provides ample reason for an abundance of caution. Science, government, the industry, and the public need to engage -- collaboratively, transparently, and urgently.
In the end, whether hydraulic fracturing repeats as the 2012 top environmental issue depends on all of us.