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Can Fracking Technology And Water Coexist?

Monarch butterfly. Image courtesy of Flickr user docentjoyce.

Monarch butterfly. Image courtesy of Flickr user docentjoyce.

You can’t live near the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania or New York without a daily dose of controversy associated with exploitation of "fracking" technology. The fracking process involves drilling into the shale formations, injecting large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals to fracture the formation, and then recovering the liberated gas, along with spent fluids. One of the most critical environmental issues at the moment seems to be what happens to the injected water. Previously, drilling companies resisted publicly releasing information regarding the composition of drilling and injection fluids, claiming confidential trade secrets. Many now seem to be moderating this position in favor of full disclosure. However questions remain:

  • Will it migrate and foul ground water? 
  • What’s the fate of the fracking chemicals that were mixed in the water?
  • What do we do with the water recovered?

The New York state legislature recently passed a bill calling for a moratorium on fracking while their environmental department gets its arms around the issues. Pennsylvania, however, is going full steam ahead. Political pressures are intense—the new Republican governor received substantial contributions in the recent election from gas producers and is friendly to the industry. Pennsylvania is desperate for revenue from natural gas extraction, while environmental groups decry fouled water and despoiled land, and newspapers tell stories of contaminated wells.

How can the public gain confidence that any resolution passed is based on scientific investigations and sound assessments that protect all interests? 

An interesting parallel from ten years ago is that of the Monarch butterfly and genetically-modified corn. You may recall that use of GM corn spread rapidly with the attendant promise of increased crop yields. Large biotechnology seed companies and legislators from agricultural states were heavily invested. Suddenly a world-wide controversy was sparked when a Cornell entomologist reported findings that pollen from GM corn was killing Monarch butterflies. Environmentalists quickly turned this into a dramatic symbol of the dangers of environmental biotechnology. You could hardly have a more charged atmosphere.

The process used for resolution of this problem is instructive. The USDA formed a steering group with representatives from all stakeholders, who decided the key questions to explore. Industry and government shared the cost of the studies aimed at answering these questions. And most importantly, the reports were written under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences using a peer review process. No one could argue that the investigators were partial or that the findings weren’t scientifically sound. (By the way, it turned out the risk to the butterflies was minimal.)

Adapting this model for use in the Marcellus Shale situation could give the public a way to feel that this critical issue is being appropriately addressed.

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