BP oil has been spilling into the Gulf of Mexico for more than two months, and while attention has focused there, deepwater oil drilling is just one of many risky methods of energy extraction that industry is pursuing. Gasland, Josh Fox's documentary about the effects of hydrofracking, a new technique for extracting natural gas, was broadcast this week on HBO. In the film, Fox travels across the country visiting families whose water has turned toxic since gas companies began drilling in their area.
"So many people were quick to respond to our requests to be interviewed about fracking that I could tell instantly that this was a national problem-and nobody had really talked enough about it," Fox told The Nation this week.
In Washington, even green groups like the Sierra Club have been pushing natural gas as a clean alternative to fuels like coal; reports like Fox's suggest that the environmental costs of obtaining that gas are not yet clear. Besides water contamination, natural gas opponents are also documenting environmental damage to air quality. Like the problems with deepwater oil drillin, which became apparent after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the dangers of hydrofracking could go unchecked until disaster strikes.
And both deepwater drilling and hydrofracking are symptoms of the greater crisis threatening the country: as energy resources become harder to extract, energy companies are taking greater risks to get at the valuable fuels.
Drilling on government land
As Fox documents, new gas wells are popping up like gopher holes all over the country, on private and public lands. Just this week, Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy law group, challenged the Bureau of Land Management's decision to allow drilling in a southwestern Colorado mountain range, the Colorado Independent reports.
"The HD Mountains are the last tiny, little corner of the San Juan Basin not yet drilled for natural gas development," Jim Fitzgerald, a farmer, told Earthjustice. "This whole area depends on the HD Mountains watersheds. Drilling could have disastrous effects upon them."
From coast to coast
Coloradans are not the only ones pushing back against drilling. In The Nation, Kara Cusolito writes about the problems Dimock, PA, has faced:
After a stray drill bit banged four wells in 2008...weird things started happening to people's water: some flushed black, some orange, some turned bubbly. One well exploded, the result of methane migration, and residents say elevated metal and toluene levels have ruined twelve others. Then, in September 2009, about 8,000 gallons of hazardous drilling fluids spilled into nearby fields and creeks.
After that second incident, fifteen families began a lawsuit against Cabot Oil and Gas, the gas company that's dominating that area. In The American Prospect, Alex Halperin wrote a couple of months back about efforts to fight back against natural gas drilling in Ithaca, NY.
One of the problems with hydrofracking is that it's poorly regulated right now. No one except the natural gas companies know what goes into the "fracking fluid" that they pour into wells to help bubble the gas up to the surface. A loophole in the Safe Water Drinking Act also exempted the practice from regulation.
That situation could be changing, however. As Amy Westervelt writes at Earth Island Journal:
"Thanks in large part to the work done by a handful of journalists and angry residents over the past couple of years, the EPA is finally looking into fracking more seriously. In fact, they're looking into it so comprehensively the energy companies are getting worried. It's worth noting here that all the big oil guys have a big stake in natural gas drilling, and many of them have contractual loopholes with the smaller companies that own the gas drilling leases that if fracking is taken off the table as a legitimate drilling process, they're out."
Like deepwater oil drilling, fracking is a relatively new endeavor, the risks of which are not fully understood. Unlike that type of drilling, though, the opportunity still exists to create a framework in which the companies will have some accountability to the environments and communities that they threaten.
Besides regulating the industries who are providing energy now, the environmental community needs to keep pressing towards a future where the country does not depend on fossil fuels like oil and gas to run our world. This week, at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, thousands of people are considering how to fight against problems like these.
Ahmina Maxey, for instance, is a member of the Zero Waste Detroit Coalition. "We are planning, next Saturday, the Clean Air, Good Jobs, Justice march to the incinerator to demand that the city of Detroit clean up its air," she told Democracy Now!
As Elizabeth DiNovella writes for The Progressive, Detroit is working towards green solutions to some of its problems. DiNovella reports:
"Detroit's population has shrunk to about a quarter of what it was forty or fifty years ago, leaving lots of open green space. But neighborhood groups are transforming these vacant lots into community gardens. Seven years ago there were 8o community gardens, consisting of neighborhood gardens, backyard patches, and school gardens. By 2009, there were 800 community gardens. This year there are 1200, including some urban farms."
"As far as I'm concerned, Detroit is ground zero for the sustainability movement," writes Ron Williams for Free Speech TV. He explains:
"What we need now is a collaborative effort that could echo around the world. An Urban Green Lab. What possible better stage than the 11th largest city in the United States which is experiencing Depression-level economic conditions? Let's take sustainability home. Collectively we have everything the people of Detroit need to build their city anew. Their solutions are likely to be the very same solutions every community will need in some form in the years ahead."
Here's hoping ideas like this take root.