If you’re reading this blog, you probably follow environmental issues and see a lot of articles, videos and information every day: emails from friends, links on social media sites, alerts from various news sources. I always find it interesting to see which of these really excite people. Some articles show up in my inbox over and over, with comments demanding, “You have to read this.”
One article that was sent to me many times yesterday was an op-ed that appeared in the Wednesday New York Times. The authors were credible representatives of business and the environmental movement — former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund. The title of the articles was The Right Way to Develop Shale Gas.
In the article the two authors from contrasting backgrounds present reasoned balance between their points of view — business and economic development that fracking enables and the environmental havoc that it causes.
But what seems reasonable in the New York Times doesn’t have much relevance for southern Montana.
The arguments presented are not unreasonable. On the positive side they argue that the fracking boom has been a good thing because it is
lowering energy costs, creating new jobs, boosting domestic manufacturing and delivering some measurable environmental benefits as well. Unlike coal, natural gas produces minuscule amounts of such toxic air pollutants as sulfur dioxide and mercury when burned — so the transition from coal- to natural-gas-fired electricity generation is improving overall air quality, which improves public health. There’s also a potential climate benefit, since natural-gas-fired plants emit roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal-fired ones.
They also recognize the legitimate concerns of environmentalists, all of which we’ve talked about on this blog:
(The) opposition to shale gas development is driven by very real instances of localized air and groundwater pollution. Because of intensive shale-gas development, the small town of Pinedale, Wyo., has experienced smog concentrations comparable to those of Los Angeles. The industry asserts that hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate water supplies when fluids are shot at high pressure into shale deposits to release gas. But inspection records in several states show that mistakes or accidents in other phases of the process — poor well construction or surface spills, for example — have done so.
They argue that we can bridge the gap between the two sides through regulation, and provide examples of how methane emission can be reduced and groundwater contamination can be controlled.
This, they say, is “essentially a data management and acquisition problem.” Let’s measure and demand controls. In this way we can “make shale gas development safer…and help the industry regain public trust.”
This is an important article, written by two credible people and published in America’s national newspaper. It will have significant reach and be quoted by lots of people as a balanced approach to oil and gas drilling. It’s hard to disagree with their recommendations. We absolutely need to reduce groundwater contamination and emissions of methane and other pollutants.
Why this argument doesn’t work
Because the article is significant, it’s also important to clearly say what’s wrong with it.
Bloomberg and Krupp have a macro point of view. They argue that controlling airbone pollution and reducing the likelihood of spills and contamination is a good thing. Of course it is. All of us would applaud any regulation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and makes it less likely that you’re going to get benzene in your well water.
But the notion that a straightforward compromise can achieve both a “safer” environment and the financial benefits of fracking is just hogwash. Maybe it somehow works at a 35,000 foot level (although I doubt it — a “safer” environment built on compromise is hardly a safe environment), but on the ground it just doesn’t work.
On the ground fracking involves bringing heavy industry into people’s back yards, and the two just don’t mix. That’s why fracking opponents are so angry. They have seen how well-funded corporations come in to communities and leave devastation in their wakes. That’s why they are voting for moratoriums.
Where we stand
Here’s where we stand in Carbon and Stillwater Counties:
- We’ve got a serial polluter standing on our doorstep ready to drill 50 wells in an attempt to “bring the Bakken to the Beartooths.”
- The EPA and the state of Montana currently offer no significant barriers to stop them from tearing up our land and water in the same irresponsible way they have drilled in other places. Congressman and would-be Senator Steve Daines, for example, is happy to tell you, “I will not support policies that would harm America’s economy while having an insignificant or uncertain benefit to the environment.”
- ECA has the resources to drill these wells in a relatively short period of time, way before Washington or Helena can put any regulations in place to stop them, even if they were inclined to do so.
- Individual landowners have no rights or ability to stop mineral rights holders from using their land to extract oil. The overlay of heavy industry on agricultural and ranch land will destroy property values and render the land unusable for its original purpose after the drillers leave.
- There will be incidents of water contamination here, just as there have been in every other area where the oil and gas boom has taken place — Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota and other parts of Montana. Our watershed is fragile. Contamination could be disastrous.
So thank you Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Krupp. We applaud your efforts to promote rational debate, and we wish you success in your efforts to achieve significant policy change to reduce pollutants and protect water.
But forgive us if we don’t agree that this is a data management and acquisition problem. Sorry if we don’t wait around while it takes years to develop the laws and regulations you are promoting. We need to be in action to protect our water and property rights today. And we need to move like our hair is on fire to enact local ordinances that will protect our water, our property rights, and our way of life.
Update 5/10/2014: Two on-point letters to the editor in response to the Bloombert-Krupp op ed in the New York Times.