Never having watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica, I didn’t understand the funny looks I got when I started talking about a new issue being researched by the Network: fracking. Apparently in BG’s science fiction universe, “frack” is a dirty word. In the real world, fracking is considered a potentially dirty process by many environmental and public health researchers and advocates.
Fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) is a method of extracting natural gas from rock formations deep beneath the earth’s surface. The more recently developed form of fracking involves digging a vertical well that then extends horizontally into the shale. An incredibly large quantity of fracking fluid (water, sand and various chemicals including carcinogens and endocrine interrupters) is blasted into the shale, creating fissures through which natural gas is released. That gas is captured in the well.
Ultimately, the fracking fluid is released from the shale. Although much of the fluid is captured on the surface, some of the fluid is not recovered. While some form of fracking has been conducted for many years, recent efforts to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale using the horizontal approach have caused deep concern for public health and environmental health professionals.
The controversy surrounding fracking serves as a perfect demonstration of the precautionary principle. There is sufficient scientific and anecdotal evidence that fracking fluid is infiltrating drinking water and is otherwise being dispersed into the environment. The chemical compounds in the fluid may be detrimental to human and animal health. Moreover, the process requires millions of gallons of water for the extraction process and may lead to increases in seismic activity. Add to these concerns the impact from the clearing of trees, the use of trucks over rural roads, the release of chemicals into the air, and potential run-off at well sites and it is clear why public health professionals have called for a moratorium on fracking.
At the same time, public health professionals are desirous of securing natural gas to serve our energy needs. Natural gas is considered a cleaner-burning energy source than oil or coal and safer than nuclear energy. Given recent calamities associated with each of the alternatives—29 West Virginia coal miners killed in 2010, the BP fiasco in the Gulf and the recent nuclear plant meltdown in Japan—natural gas is attractive to the public health community. That is why the fracking issue presents a unique challenge and a unique opportunity.
The possibility of retrieving trillions of cubic feet of natural gas is providing incentive to public health professionals to approach fracking with caution. Yes, the precautionary principle tells us to slow down, get sufficient research so that we can regulate the process to reduce the risk of harm to acceptable levels. But the value in securing a cleaner, safer, domestic energy source dictates that we accept some risk, that we not seek to ban but rather to temporarily stop fracking until we are comfortable with the risk level and have sufficient plans to remediate any harm as effectively as possible. Extremism gives way to reason in this circumstance.
Public health and environmental professionals and policy-makers interested in learning more about the concerns raised by fracking should join the Network’s webinar, “Fracking - Is It Just a Dirty Word?: Environmental and Public Health Considerations of Hydrofracturing,” on May 19 at 1:00 p.m. ET. For more information, email us or keep an eye on our webinar page for upcoming registration information.
For more reading on fracking, check out these articles:
This information was developed by Kathleen Dachille, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.