After an exhaustive, three-part series in The Buffalo News, it is clear that when it comes to the drilling process known as fracking, nobody really knows much of anything.
Is it an economic driver? Yes, but not as powerful as industry proponents would have you believe.
Is it safe? It might be, when disposal of the fracking fluid is not causing earthquakes and if the discolored tap water in some regions is unrelated to the horizontal hydraulic fracturing that is under way nearby.
But it’s still environmentally safer that coal, right? Yes, unless the researchers at the University at Texas are right and fracking releases so much damaging methane that it overwhelms the benefits of burning natural gas rather than coal. And even if it is environmentally harmful, is that outweighed by the fact that fracking allows the nation to buy less fuel from Middle Eastern countries that are incubators of terrorism?
So what should happen in New York, which now prohibits fracking? It’s a difficult question because the effects are unknowable, at least today. The way to find out – probably the only way – is to allow for a limited, carefully controlled and monitored experiment to be conducted in one or two counties where a significant majority of residents support fracking.
Such an experiment could settle the dispute over whether fracking releases dangerous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. To qualify to take part in the experiment, drillers would have to agree to a system that accurately monitors release of the gas. If there is relatively little, that will provide relief. If the amounts are unacceptably high, testing could help entrepreneurs devise systems to prevent the gas from being released or at least to capture it – or, if that’s not practical, simply additional fracking could be prohibited.
There are anecdotal reports, but no solid proof, of water wells being contaminated by fracking. The drilling experiment would have to carefully monitor wells for contamination. Waste water from the fracking process would have to be disposed of responsibly.
Companies that engage in fracking should also be subject to painful fines if they fail to abide by the rules, and required to post large bonds against damage that could occur, including permanent harm done to properties and property values. No one should be subjected to burdensome costs that undermine their ability to enjoy or sell their homes.
This will please neither the hard-core opponents of fracking nor its passionate supporters, but it does offer a way to better examine the issues surrounding fracking in a measurable and accountable way without encountering significant local opposition.
If drillers decline to participate in this experiment, either because this proposed attention to safety is too expensive or they fear what the experiment will show, then fracking in New York can wait until better technology is available. The gas is not going anywhere.
Some will continue to argue that fracking is so unsafe that it can never be permitted, even on a restricted basis. But the fact is that we don’t know that. It may be so, but there’s also a good chance that it isn’t unsafe. It won’t be unacceptably risky to try to find out, especially given that the fracking genie is already out of the bottle around the country, including nearby in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
All energy production creates risks. Even the Niagara Power Project, which produces electricity by water power – the cleanest source available for producing large amounts of electricity – isn’t without cost to the environment. Risk is inherent, not just in power production but in life. It can’t be the reason never to act.
At the same time, it has become clear to all who are paying attention that climate change is real and that the burning of fossil fuels is almost certainly a primary cause. Fracking, if it is to be allowed in New York, needs to be understood as a bridge to the creation of cleaner and safer sources of energy that will allow the world to pull back from the prospect of environmental disaster.