Recent Op-Ed pieces in prominent newspapers have suggested that with proper regulatory oversight, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” can be accomplished safely in New York, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and bringing much needed economic benefits to hard-hit areas of the state. If the issue was that simple, and if the statements were true, surely everyone would be in favor.
But the facts don’t support these statements, and the issue is not as simple as the TV ads would have citizens believe. Fracking is an inherently dangerous and destructive extreme form of energy extraction that brings with it a myriad of serious environmental and economic problems. Now that we have the opportunity to see how fracking has actually impacted citizens in Pennsylvania and other states, we can more easily distinguish fact from fantasy and make smarter choices for New York.
It’s an undisputed fact – although seldom acknowledged by those who make their fortunes by selling energy – that we have the ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil anytime we want. Dollar for dollar, watt for watt, when it comes to looking for new sources of energy, nothing comes even remotely close to the energy reserves available to us through conservation. No cost, no pollution, no need for government oversight or environmental concern. All that is required is better planning and smarter thinking.
But what about the economic benefits of fracking? Scholarly studies have come down on both sides. Those not sponsored by the gas industry tend to highlight the temporary nature and low-skill level of jobs associated with fracking, and the fleeting economic benefits communities may experience. After all, this highly technical and dangerous work requires highly trained workers who generally come from out of state to work on the rigs, then move on. Local folks may be needed to pour the coffee or flip the burgers, but once the frackers are done, so are those jobs.
What few politicians will admit is that the real economic benefits of fracking accrue to them personally, in the form of large campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. A recent study by Common Cause revealed that gas industry has spent $20 million on the campaigns of current members of Congress. New York politicians have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, according to public sources.
And let’s not overlook the real and measurable impacts fracking wreaks on the environment. Contaminated air, for example, is an absolute certainty with fracking, not the potential result of some future accident. The exhaust from thousands of diesel trucks, added to that of generators, pumps and support equipment significantly pollutes the air quality not only in the immediate surrounding area but for hundreds of miles downwind. Exposure to diesel exhaust is a proven cause of both asthma and lung cancer. In areas of Wyoming near fracking operations, air pollution has been measured at levels higher than in downtown Los Angeles.
Environmental concerns also include potential contamination of public water supplies (as has already happened in Dimock, Pennsylvania), the dumping of toxic fracking sludge in remote wooded areas (as happened last week in Pennsylvania) and the transportation of radioactive wastewater to Long Island for processing in local water treatment plants, as contemplated by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
Despite the calm assurances of the oil and gas industry and their supporters, we’ve seen what can happen when industry promises that inherently dangerous activities will be made safe by rigorous oversight.
Exxon promised to carefully transport oil through Prudhoe Bay. BP promised that they would drill safely in the Gulf of Mexico. The engineers at Fukushima promised their safety systems would protect the public. In each case, government regulations were in place to protect us. In each case, they failed.
So here we go again. Money is flowing to politicians, and the airwaves are filled with happy talk about our newfound energy wealth. Will we learn this time, or will we repeat the mistakes of the past? Will New York become a center for green energy and a source of true economic growth, or will we mortgage our children’s future so that a few people can make a killing in a dying industry?
(Doug Wood is Associate Director of