Screening and discussion focuses on communities dealing with fracking
— January 16, 2013
If you’re in Casper this Thursday evening you might consider catching Promised Land at the Studio City movie theater complex, if not for the big name movie stars — Matt Damon and Frances McDormand — then for the discussion afterward about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the effects — good and bad — it is having on many communities throughout the U.S.
The screening begins at 7 p.m. and the discussion will follow immediately after the movie right there at Studio City. The event is organized by Independence Rock Group, a faith-based organization that describes itself as a “center for faith, ethics, and public affairs.” The discussion will be led by Independence Rock Group executive director Chris Henrichsen. Henrichsen says he’s also invited Casper Star-Tribune reporter Jeremy Fugleberg, who has covered fracking and other forms of energy development in Wyoming, to participate as well.
I cannot attend the discussion, but I told Mr. Henrichsen that I’d offer a few thoughts and observations on fracking and what energy development means to communities.
First, I like to tell people that fracking — and nearly any industrial technology — isn’t a bad thing. Natural gas, oil and coal are not inherently bad or dangerous things, either. It’s what we do with those substances. With the privilege of having an abundance of these resources, our nation also has a responsibility to harvest and use these resources in a responsible manner. Jobs and profits must not be the only factors.
I’m not alarmed at all about fracking — injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into deep geologic zones that are already packed with toxic petroleum compounds. Today’s drilling and well-completion technologies are fascinating and exciting, and who knows where they will lead us beyond oil and gas production. What alarms me is an apparent lack of liability, because there will be spills and accidents.
A majority of the shale gas and tight-sands gas drilling and fracking that has occurred over the past decade was done without prior baseline testing of groundwater and drinking water resources. Without that vital information in hand before operations begin, it is nearly impossible to perform the post-fracking forensic investigation to prove any activity might have contaminated groundwater or drinking water.
This lack of liability can easily be addressed by requiring such baseline testing, ongoing monitoring and full-disclosure reporting. Keep in mind that a lot of these measures are being undertaken by some operators, but it shouldn’t be a voluntary, good-faith handshake. That’s not how matters of liability are supposed to work these days. And you’re kidding yourself if you believe that politics sometimes overrides science only at federal agencies, and not at the city, county and state level. But you’re not kidding the rest of us.
That’s a short-take on the regulatory side. As for communities that suddenly find themselves near, or in the middle of, modern onshore drilling plays, I would say, please do not marginalize neighbors who are impacted by the development and would rather see it go away. I observed early on — way back during the onset of the coal-bed methane gas boom in the Powder River Basin, circa 1998 — that drilling operations impact each neighbor differently. There are winners and losers. And for the majority of landowners who do not own mineral rights, they don’t get to choose which company comes knocking on their door to develop the minerals below that piece of land that means the world to them.
Complaints should be taken very seriously, and homeowners should never be burdened with having to investigate what’s happening 300 feet or 13,000 feet below the surface. State and federal regulators ought to have the resources needed to provide complete answers in a timely fashion.
It’s a very personal thing when the integrity of your family’s health, your home, your land and your water are threatened, or even perceived to be threatened. There are many good players in the oil & gas industry, but it’s not fair or wise to downplay the industrial intensity of drilling these wells. It’s never fair or wise to downplay the concerns of homeowners and communities who rightfully have endless questions about drilling operations and what’s happening to their air and water.
And I believe that events like the one that Independence Rock Group is organizing can provide a forum for calm, respectable discussions. Communities need constant communication to make sure that while the overall community enjoys an economic shot in the arm it doesn’t unnecessarily burden others. Fracking isn’t bad, it’s how you do it, whether we’re going to hold companies liable for their own actions, and whether we’re going to help those who are feeling the impacts more than others.
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