Editorial: In Our Backyard? No Fracking Way!

The Editorial Board

One thing is on some restless students’ minds as springtime rolls in. By most accounts, it’s a dirty business. It seems like everywhere around us people are doing it — right in our own muddy Ohio backyard. Let’s talk about fracking.

The process of induced hydraulic fracturing is getting energy companies increasingly hot and bothered about the prospect of untapped natural gas reserves, particularly in the Marcellus Shale that extends across a large portion of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Despite what would seem like a love-at-first-sight relationship for anyone interested in cheap energy, questions about fracking’s safety, environmental impact and effect on the continuing U.S. reliance on fossil fuels still abound. A group of Oberlin students is gearing up for demonstrations next week at the Ohio Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference, a meeting of companies involved in exploration and production (E&P) for oil and natural gas wells in the state.

Those opposed to fracking cite groundwater contamination, the potential migration of gases and chemicals to the surface and the mishandling of waste as a few of the most pressing problems with the procedure. Many cases of groundwater contamination have already been documented. In his 2005 documentary Gasland about the natural gas industry, Josh Fox interviewed West Virginia residents who are able to light their tap water on fire thanks to an excessive concentration of pollutants.

Resistance to fracking faces some of the most formidable challenges that can vex any activist cause — a confluence of special interests, market forces, murky bureaucracies, and misinformation. A petition submitted to the federal EPA by a coalition of 115 environmental groups last November was successful in getting the agency to agree to require safety studies of the toxic chemicals involved in E&P activities as well as create a forum for public input about how the results will be reported. This is an exciting bone to be thrown to the ideals of transparency and justice, but the path remains treacherous.

As the actions of Ohio politicians and federal agencies have shown, fracking is a divisive local issue. For those in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, Ohio, West Virginia, upstate New York and other hotbeds of fracking activity, the procedure has become a central environmental and public health issue. Yet on a national level, concern about fracking has failed to take hold. As recently as 2005, Congress exempted the process from any regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. To varying degrees, many congressional Republicans as well as GOP presidential candidates including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney oppose new taxes or the elimination of tax breaks for oil and gas companies. In a recent campaign stop in Oklahoma, Santorum referred to fracking as “the new boogeyman” for environmentalists.

Interestingly, Tea Party-aligned Ohio Governor John Kasich has called for more oversight of the fracking industry, and is expected to call for a new energy policy next week that would place a tax on the practice. He also recently put a moratorium on the deep injection of drilling wastes within five miles of a well site after a series of earthquakes last year in this mid-continental state that are now being studied for their links to brine injection.

This just goes to show that despite Americans’ voracious appetite for nonrenewable energy, fossil fuels like oil and natural gas are like sausage and legislation: People don’t want to see them getting made. It’s easy to chant “drill, baby, drill!” when Americans are too distant and apathetic to associate drilling with anything but lower prices at the pump — but when the drilling, baby, drilling is going on around their own homes, even the gas guzzler-driving far-right conservatives who make up Governor Kasich’s base can begin to have second thoughts. If the association between fossil fuels and the dirty processes that go into their production grows stronger, hopefully more ordinary Americans will come to the next realization: Solving our fossil fuel dependency with more drilling is like solving a heroin habit by growing poppies.