League has right to sound alarms

A recent commentary “There’s fiction with fracking foes” (Nov. 30) attacking a presentation made by members of the League of Women Voters to the Portland Town Board was recently printed in the OBSERVER.

Calling the presentation “ill-advised and ill-informed science fiction” the author went on to list the benefits of fracking, and charged the League with being “local mouthpieces” for “out-of-towners” “telling us how to lead our lives.”

Where to begin?

In the first place, if voicing a concern for the environment, or expressing a view on any other matter, is to be rejected as “telling us how to lead our lives,” then we should never listen to any ideas or any presentation of facts because it might change our ideas or our conduct in some way. Think what such a view implies.

Now, what are the fictions the writer charges us with? He says that although fracking a single well does indeed require a million gallons of water, and although flowback water is indeed radioactive, wastewater treatment plants are forbidden to accept radioactive water and drillers are trying to recycle flowback water so as to reduce their water costs: one corporation now is using 100 percent non-fresh water. That’s encouraging to know, and one can hope that the practice will spread, but meanwhile wells continue to use fresh water and a well in a new location will begin with fresh water, unless it’s receiving recycled water from somewhere else – a whole different problem. And what, in any case, becomes of the radioactive water?

He says that while the mixture of chemicals used in fracking is indeed a trade secret, the ingredients are not, and moreover, that many of the toxic chemicals used in fracking are found in household products. Of course, the whole question here is concentration, and the percents of the chemicals – their concentrations – are not public knowledge. To take a homely example, we need salt in our diets, but an excess of salt is dangerous. The same or worse can be said of most chemicals used in fracking or released by it, including arsenic, barium, bromine, chlorine, manganese, radium, selenium, sodium, strontium, and more.

The writer says our League member “should be ashamed and embarrassed to present … as fact” that gas companies are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Well, the details are voluminous and would try your readers’ patience, but here’s a brief summary. All the acts named by the writer have been amended to exempt gas exploration and production from some of the acts’ requirements: from the need for permits to dump materials into waterways, from environmental impact statements, from having wastes and other materials classified as toxic, from having to report the release or transport of toxic materials, and more. Some of these exemptions, known as the Halliburtan Loophole, were enacted in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Of course some provisions of all these acts must apply to gas extraction, but some important ones do not. Saying the acts don’t apply is shorthand for detailing the lacy effect of their many loopholes.

And here we come to the major question for citizens: how safe is horizontal hydrofracking? Now, this is not the same process we have had for so many years in Chautauqua County. It is relatively new: it uses different materials and greater power to break up the rock in which gas is found and it drills horizontally underground several miles from its surface starting point. The gas industry argues that since it penetrates below the water table, the chemicals it injects to shatter the rock can’t affect our water. However, its wells are lined with cement, which is porous to methane, and the methane that flows into the atmosphere from deep underground is 25 times more damaging, as a greenhouse gas, than carbon dioxide. Methane leakage occurs even if the cement isn’t broken. In 2011, The New York Times reported that 65 wells drilled that year in Pennsylvania were found to have faulty cement casings: imagine what other chemicals leaked out there.

But a fracking operation isn’t just wells. It uses compressor stations, chemical ponds, and temporary plastic pipelines connecting to them. The Times quotes a Range Resources employee at one site saying “we all know they leak.”

On some farms, animals have died and people have fallen seriously ill from water contaminated by leaks in pond linings. Spills from trucks can also be a problem: truck drivers transporting fracking wastes and brine are exempt from the driving-time limits in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Act, making accidents more likely. Recent research in Texas has found that from 22 percent to 65 percent of areas near fracked wells have levels of toxins that exceed EPA limits – the different percents depend on which toxins we’re talking about. It’s hard to bring much of this damage home to the gas companies (that’s a story in itself), and we’re assured that the companies are developing new technologies to deal with the mostly nonexistent problems. Meanwhile people are suffering.

Some people have gotten rich from fracking, of course. But their gain may be others’ loss. Typically, the gains to the community are short-lived. The companies come with their own teams of drillers, and while they spend money until the well is working, then they move on. Tax gains from the wells are also short-lived. It seems that this type of well depletes quickly – from 34 percent to 44 percent in one year, according to recent reports based on an analysis of 60,000 wells.

But natural gas burns cleaner than coal, so environmentalists should embrace it, says our writer. This is true up to a point, and I want to emphasize that the League of Women Voters is not opposing the conversion of the NRG plant in Dunkirk. However, in a recent bulletin the Union of Concerned Scientists states, “Methane leakage significantly reduces – or, at higher levels, even negates – the potential climate advantage natural gas has over coal.” In other words, using natural gas will not reduce global warming or slow climate change. But, says our writer, gas will free us from dependence on foreign oil.

To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. is now exporting oil, though that doesn’t mean other fuels aren’t preferable. Many experts think that wind and solar power are closer to meeting our energy needs than is commonly supposed. But meanwhile, without wanting to frighten people, the League of Women Voters believes Chautauqua County would do well to keep fracking brine and wastes off our roads and out of our waterways, which is what the resolution before the town of Portland recommends. If the current state moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking is lifted, we hope we can also keep drilling far away from our dairy farms, wells, lakes, and streams.

Nothing less than the long-term future of our economy is at stake.

Minda Rae Amiran is a Fredonia resident and League of Women Voters member.