Toxic spill shows need for caution on fracking
The chemical spill in West Virginia serves as a reminder how valuable water is. Clean water is the most basic utility, period. Although 300,000 people were without water for five days, luckily the chemical that spilled was not very toxic. This accident should lead all of us to seriously consider what limitations should be put on fracking.
All consumers of natural gas appreciate the low cost of this fuel. But what is the real cost? So far there have been only minor and localized accidents associated with shale fracturing. But what is the long-term cost? What is not in dispute, even by the fracking industry, is that it takes enormous amounts of water (up to a million gallons per well) and large amounts of extremely toxic chemicals injected at a pressure of 10,000 p.s.i. to extract natural gas from shale. About a third of this polluted water flows back from the well, and needs to be disposed of in a permanent “dump.” This water cannot be made safe by existing water treatment plants and cannot be safely returned to surface water sources.
Congress has made the oil and gas industry exempt from most pollution laws and this has led to a “Wild West” mentality. As the axiom goes, “accidents happen.” Surely they do. Well casings crack. Containment ponds overflow. Waste water leaks into ground water. Who will be “on the hook” in the event of a serious accident? What if an entire aquifer is contaminated? Keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best is foolhardy. With 82,000 active wells in the United States, a serious accident is bound to happen. The benefits of shale gas are obvious. What is needed is a wide-ranging and frank discussion about how dangerous this process is. The real cost could be devastating.