We have frequently written about “unknown unknowns” — the long-term impacts of oil and gas drilling that we cannot anticipate. These include health impacts, water contamination, impacts on global warming, and so on.
Drilling proponents often belittle these concerns, and say that the economy trumps unknown environmental impacts and threats to personal safety. This point of view is expertly voiced by Montana Congressman Steve Daines, who famously said in a letter to a constituent,
While I believe we all have a moral responsibility to be good stewards of the environment, the current uncertainty surrounding climate change requires us to consider very carefully any legislation that would cost jobs and hurt families with only the promise of an extremely small impact on the reported problem….I will not support policies that would harm America’s economy while having an insignificant or uncertain benefit to the environment. We need a strong economy that creates jobs and opportunities for families and a clean sustainable environment.
This argument is pretty hard for me to swallow. It says that when we’re not sure what the environmental impact of oil and gas drilling is going to be, we should go full speed ahead if it helps the economy.
I wonder what our kids are going to think when they look back at Congressman Daines’ argument in 25 years or so, when the oil rigs are gone and the community is left dealing with the mess.
A recent study says we have no idea what we’re going to find out.
Fracking in the Dark
This week a team of eight conservation biologists sounded the alarm on the Steve Daines viewpoint in a study that coins the term “fracking in the dark.” The study’s argument is that, with shale gas drilling increased by 700% since 2007 and expected to increase over the next 30 years, we have vastly outpaced scientists’ understanding of the industry’s environmental impact.
The authors call on scientists, industry representatives and policymakers to cooperate on determining — and minimizing — the damage inflicted on the natural world by gas operations such as hydraulic fracturing“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said co-author Morgan Tingley. “The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts.”
The study points to major sources of gaps in our knowledge due to the lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and the composition of fracturing fluids.
Rapid and widespread shale development has disproportionately affected rural and natural areas. A single well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres (1.5 to 3.1 hectares) of vegetation, and each well contributes to a collective mass of air, water, noise and light pollution that has or can interfere with wild animal health, habitats and reproduction. Potential sources of harm are depicted in the diagram below.
Working in the dark at Ground Zero
Perhaps it is instructive to also look at the delayed impact of what has happened at Ground Zero in New York in the wake of 9/11 as a cautionary tale of why we should slow down on shale drilling.
More than 2500 Ground Zero rescuers, responders and workers have contracted cancer, according to recent reports. The World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York reports 1,655 responders with cancer among the 37,000 police, construction and sanitation workers, and others it monitors. In addition, the New York Fire Department, which has its own monitoring program, reports an additional 863 firefighters and EMTs have come down with the disease.
What is particularly frightening about the size of this cancer cluster is that it has more than doubled from the 1,140 cancer cases reported last year. WTC epidemiologists say studies show that 9/11 workers have gotten certain cancers at a significantly higher rate than expected in the normal population: prostate, thyroid, leukemia and multiple myeloma.
What we are seeing is a long delay between exposure and health impact. We’re now 13 years out from 9/11, and we’re just seeing a huge increase in the number of cancers reported.
I know. The circumstances are different, the chemicals are different, and you can’t compare apples and oranges. But when you expose people and animals to toxins without considering the long-term impacts, you are going to pay down the road. Don’t forget the case of Vernal, Utah.
Let’s not frack in the dark along the Beartooth Front
Today more than 15 million people in the United States live within a mile of an oil or gas well drilled since 2000. How many will suffer health effects? How much groundwater contamination will occur as damaged bore holes and leaky pit liners release water into the ground?
It’s going to take us a long time to figure all this out. Proof of the link between drilling, contamination and health is elusive. Michelle Bamberger, co-author of the recent book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets and Food, explains the difficulty of proving links between shale drilling and its long-term impacts:
We feel strongly that it’s because of the current testing methods that are used and the fact that for a lot of these chemicals, we don’t know what they are actually using — especially the proprietary mixes, we don’t know what all the components are. But also we don’t know what the maximum contaminate levels (MCLs) are. So, in other words, what is the level below which there are no health effects and above which definitely there are? And what are the effective screening levels for air? If we don’t really know them, then we believe these people have no recourse because there’s no MCL. And that came out really strongly for me. We have several cases in the book that are part of the EPA study, where I was shocked when I saw the water results that a large majority of those chemicals the EPA was testing didn’t have MCLs. And if you don’t have an MCL, you can’t go into litigation, you can’t go to court and say “we have conclusive evidence.” It doesn’t matter how sick they are and that they can’t use their water or that when they stop using their water they get better and when they use it again they get worse. None of that counts as conclusive evidence.
This makes it very easy for Steve Daines and his ilk to urge us to go full speed ahead. We have no conclusive proof. Let’s keep going, they say, because it’s good for the economy.
The bottom line is we don’t know, and we aren’t going to know for a long time. So should we be fracking in the dark? It seems like we have everything to lose in the long term for short-term gain.
Let’s pulll back on the throttle and limit what oil and gas companies are doing along the Beartooth Front.
Get informed, talk to your neighbors, and contact local authorities in Carbon and Stillwater Counties. Our land, our water, our health and way of life are at stake.