“There is no regulatory framework for fracking that will keep the toxins out of air and water, or will protect the climate from carbon and methane releases. It can’t be done. It can’t be made safe. Like lead paint, we finally have to ban it.”
So concludes Sandra Steingraber of Concerned Health Professionals of New York in an interview. She is one of five authors of a newly released compendium of scientific and media findings on the dangers of shale gas development her group coauthored with Physicians for Social Responsibility.
This report is the sixth in a series that looks at peer-reviewed scientific articles, as well as government reports and investigative stories, on the wide variety of harms created by the fracking industry. The reports examine the human rights implications of poisoning drinking water with fracking chemicals; the heavy climate impacts of methane release, in both the extraction and transportation of fracked natural gas for export; the industry’s weak record on worker safety; and increased earthquake activity in communities near fracking operations.
“There’s not a lot of noise in this data. It’s looking worse and worse for fracking.”
Fracking extracts shale oil by injecting a mix of sand, water, and chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic, into horizontal wells drilled into rock. As Steingraber explains, “To get the sand grains down there and not clog plumbing, you have to add chemicals that lubricate. Also, shale is a living organism so you have powerful biocides to kill off the microbiota on shale. It’s toxic and there is no way to turn reverse that. Fresh drinkable water is turned to poison.”
The industry has taken off thanks to support for domestic energy development under successive administrations. In 2018, the United States eclipsed both Saudi Arabia and Russia in natural gas production. Natural gas is mostly methane, some thirty times more powerful a heat-trapping gas than carbon, in a fracking industry leaky both in gas extraction and transport. As the increased supply has lowered prices, the industry has sought to expand exports, building the infrastructure to export liquified natural gas to other countries.
For Steingraber, who began collecting this data in 2012 as a member of a “frontline” community fighting fracking in her home state of New York, the notion that the United States would crack open its bedrock and fill its drinking water with known carcinogens in order to export energy to other countries is nothing short of blasphemy.
“By design liquified natural gas has to leak so it’s already bad,” she says, “but getting it set up for transport is a climate disaster on steroids. It also creates a terrorist threat.”
As fracking has expanded, so have fears over its impacts, as this latest report reflects. “There’s not a lot of noise in this data,” Steingraber says. “It’s looking worse and worse for fracking.”
She points to one of the fifteen main themes of the report—the challenge to the notion that natural gas can help wean us off coal. “The common discourse is that natural gas [because it burns more cleanly than coal] is a bridge fuel,” she notes. “Now, not only can we show there is no evidence for that, but that fracking leads to a terrible place.”
The new report includes a growing list of communities, states, and countries around the world that are working to mitigate the human health impacts of fracking, and even ban it altogether. “We’ve been traveling scientists,” Steingraber tells me. “We’re bringing the data into frontline communities because the so-called economic benefits stop looking so good when they can’t drink water and can’t get a new mortgage or kids get nosebleeds or cattle died.”
Steingraber hopes the new report, through its sheer numbers of citations, will convince more communities and policymakers that fracking should be banned. She points out how New York state did just that after former Governor David Paterson put Marcellus Shale development and fracking on hold pending a review of its environmental impacts.
“It was enough time for us to gather data and for policy makers to review the evidence and to assess the costs and benefits and to ultimately ban fracking in the state,” Steingraber says. “It was a victory for science.”
But in neighboring Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s top natural natural-gas-producing states, the story is very different. Investigative reporting by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has identified at least forty-six children in Fayette, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties who have been diagnosed with rare forms of cancer since 2008, including at least twenty-seven cases of Ewing sarcoma suspected to be linked to fracking activities. In Pennsylvania, some fracking facilities operate within 300 feet of people’s homes
Steingraber is a signatory on a letter delivered on June 19 to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, calling on him to direct the state Department of Health to investigate potential links between fracking and a proliferation of childhood cancers.
Yet the fracking industry remains unmoved by such concerns. “Energy in Depth,” a publication of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, for example, describes an earlier compendium of scientific findings—much of which is referenced in Steingraber’s more recent report—as “repackaging of the same old discredited fracking studies,” and merely presented to media from a “new(ish) angle.”
“In certain states, even presented with careful peer-reviewed science, [the industry] tends to push back very hard, maintaining the message that there are no notable impacts on climate, human health or otherwise,” says Seth Shonkoff of the energy science and policy institute, PSE Healthy Energy. Shonkoff was not involved in Steingraber’s report.
Some states, including California and Colorado, have more successfully worked with industry to create such harm-mitigation strategies as methane reduction rules, emission control technologies, and minimum “setbacks” to protect communities from fracking operations. “It’s not at all perfect,” Shonkoff says, “but it’s heartening to see some take the issue seriously based on the science.”
“The so-called economic benefits stop looking so good when people can’t drink the water and can’t get a new mortgage or kids get nosebleeds or cattle died.”
Still, he adds, “much of the industry fights tooth and nail against emission reduction or consideration of minimum setbacks and other mitigating opportunities, and in the face of the growing strength of scientific evidence this seems odd.”
Steingraber is hopeful that the increasing number of studies and the care with which the work has been complied and peer reviewed will create enough public awareness and momentum to pressure lawmakers to act. She points to the Oil Money Out campaign pressuring political candidates to refuse money from the fossil fuel industry. The campaign was catalyzed by a scientific study in California revealing the public health and environmental impacts of oil extraction.
Where industry has captured the regulatory agencies and the political leadership, she says, the science can’t speak as loudly as it needs to. “This is relevant to climate change and basic public health. We’re not just describing neutrons here. It’s urgent.”