THE FINGER LAKES region of western New York is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The 11 lakes dangle like a necklace below Lake Ontario, surrounded by hills that are a breathtaking green in summer, red and orange for a flash in the autumn, then snowy white until the cycle repeats. It’s an area where the main tension has been of the resident-vs.-renter sort.
This summer, the tension, visibly staked out with lawn signs, was different. The topic: hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” for short. In this process, fluid—primarily water, with some sand and other chemicals—is injected deep underground to break apart shale rock, releasing natural gas and oil. Back at the surface, gas and oil are cleaned and sold; the water mixture is dumped into deep wells.
The procedure has only been made cost-effective in the last decade or so; awareness of retrievable shale oil and gas deposits isn’t a whole lot older. Combine the two, and you have an energy boom—one that led natural gas to nearly overtake coal for electricity production at one point last year.
A key question that has not been definitively answered: Does fracking, compared to the fuel it displaces, increase or decrease greenhouse gas production? Since natural gas, compared to coal, produces significantly less carbon dioxide when burned, cheaper natural gas is one reason why U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have gone down significantly of late. But natural gas is primarily methane—a gas that is more than 20 times as effective at trapping heat as carbon dioxide. During the fracking process, some of that methane escapes into the atmosphere; there is debate over how much.
Another critical, and contested, question is the extent to which fracking fluid pollutes groundwater. There have been isolated reports of chemicals contained in fracking fluid being found in the wild, including by the EPA in Wyoming last year. Back in 2004, an initial EPA report found that fracking with diesel fuel posed a risk to groundwater (though the overall verdict of the Bush administration-era agency was that fracking was safe). It’s difficult to determine the extent to which such pollution is a problem, because many fracking companies are allowed under state laws to keep the proprietary ingredients of their fluid secret.
At least the states have the ability to ask. In 2005, Congress permanently exempted fracking from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act—a move championed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney (and later opposed by former EPA officials).
ProPublica, an investigative journalism nonprofit, recently announced that one of the most likely sources of groundwater contamination comes not from the drilling or fracking, but from the disposal of fracking fluid. More than 30 trillion gallons of waste fracking fluid have been injected underground; disposal wells are regularly operated at unsafe pressures. And those wells are, in theory, permanent.
It is not in the fracking companies’ interest to answer pollution questions objectively—particularly while fracking wells erupt with money as much as natural gas. New York state recently decided to reset its entire decision-making process, beginning its scientific analysis again from square one, delaying any decision on whether the state will allow fracking.
In Penn Yan, in the Finger Lakes region, jobs are in short supply, and the local Keuka Lake offers both revenue and pride. This fall, I spoke with an employee of the local Chamber of Commerce to ask if it had taken a position on the roiling fracking debate. I expected an organization of local businesses to be staunchly supportive. The Chamber hadn’t taken a position, she explained. As many members opposed fracking as supported it.
With good reason.
Philip Bump covers environmental news for Grist magazine.
Image: Murky water, Sheli Jensen  / Shutterstock.com