Something in the water: The polluted politics of fracking

I left Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, so it’s probably time to write about what I was doing there all summer. Especially since it has everything to do with water.

For 10 weeks, I interned at the Sierra Club’s legislative office, lobbying for tougher regulation of the natural gas industry. I was particularly focused on the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has enabled the natural gas boom in the United States over the last few years. Even if you didn’t see Matt Damon’s “Promised Land”—or the more overtly anti-fracking documentary “Gasland”—you’ve probably heard about the increasingly controversial drilling technique.

By way of background, fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground, to fracture shale formations and release the natural gas trapped inside. But while natural gas has some advantages over other fossil fuels—it’s relatively abundant in the United States, and it burns more cleanly than coal or oil—there’s increasing evidence that fracking has contaminated groundwater with toxic chemicals and flammable gas, led to the pollution of rivers and streams with hazardous wastewater, and exacerbated water scarcity concerns in drought-plagued regions. Perhaps even scarier is the fact that fracking is exempted from key provisions of seven major environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act.

In sum: If you think everyone should have access to clean drinking water, you should be worried about fracking. And you should be worried about those loopholes.

I realize that those are loaded statements, but after several months listening to both sides of the argument on fracking, I feel comfortable making them. Several studies have found a strong correlation between proximity to fracking sites and methane contamination, and the Environmental Protection Agency has blamed several instances of groundwater pollution on fracking. And that’s without getting into the overwhelming anecdotal evidence seen in stories like this one, this one, this one, and many others.

I won’t ask you to take my word for any of this—there’s a lot of information out there, and I encourage you to read as much of it as possible. (Try some of the above links to studies and articles. For literature from environmental organizations, I’d start here, here, and here; for the industry perspective, I’d start here, here, and here.)

What I will ask you, though, is to consider this question: If there’s a chance that fracking is threatening our scarce drinking water resources, then why have politicians and regulators alike embraced the drilling technique with such enthusiasm?

Let me back up for a minute. About halfway through the summer—just as I was really getting frustrated by the lack of legislative action surrounding fracking—a congressman named Matt Cartwright introduced a bill that would eliminate an oil and gas industry loophole in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. RCRA is the environmental law that governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste, and Cartwright’s cleverly named CLEANER Act* would close a loophole that has become especially dangerous in light of fracking. Fracking creates enormous amounts of toxic wastewater, which has been known to contaminate rivers, streams, and other surface waters.

*Deep breath: It’s the, “Closing Loopholes and Ending Arbitrary and Needless Evasion of Regulations Act.”

CLEANER was actually the fourth loophole-closing bill that had been introduced since the beginning of the year, but after weeks of immersion in all things fracking, it was hard for me not to get excited. The CLEANER Act felt like a godsend, and my exhilaration only increased after my supervisor told me that it would be my job to lobby for as many cosponsors as possible. So I got to work enthusiastically, calling and visiting congressional offices, asking to speak to the environmental staffers, and telling them why the Sierra Club supported the bill. I also reached out to environmental organizations from around the country, asking them to sign on to a letter in support of all four loophole-closing bills.

By and large, the reception I got was positive, with most of the staffers telling me that they liked the sound of the bill and would see if their bosses were interested in cosponsoring it. By the time CLEANER was introduced, it had 43 cosponsors, and the group letter had 137 signatories. I was probably only responsible for a small fraction of that—Cartwright’s staff and other organizations were lobbying for the bill too, and doing outreach for the letter—but it still felt great. I even got to meet Congressman Cartwright.

Cartwright meeting

You can see my hair, but not my face, on the left. Photo via @RepCartwright.

There was one problem, though: The CLEANER Act had no chance of passage. And neither did any of the other loophole-closing bills.

To me, at least, closing loopholes in environmental laws seems like common sense—especially when something as fundamental as the security of our drinking water is at stake. But the reality, as I learned this summer, is that even most Democrats are financially beholden to the oil and gas industry. Even if John Boehner put these bills up for a vote—which he never would—they’d be defeated. The list of offices I had been calling through was a list of likely cosponsors—there was no point in calling any Republicans*, or many Democrats who depended on oil and gas money.

*Actually, I did call the office of one Republican, Chris Gibson of New York, who had co-authored another loophole-closing bill. He declined on this one.

The real kicker, though, was realizing that even if the bills somehow got to President Obama’s desk, it’s not clear what he’d do with them. President Obama has bought into the idea that natural gas can be a cleaner-burning “bridge fuel” to help us transition from coal to renewables, and a big part of his climate plan involves ramping up fracking. His administration is so pro-gas, in fact, that in some cases it has actively ignored the evidence of fracking’s deleterious environmental consequences. The EPA, for instance, has abruptly and inexplicably abandoned all three investigations in which preliminary evidence indicated that fracking was responsible for contaminating groundwater.

I don’t have much sympathy for congresspeople who won’t protect our scarce water resources because they get money from the oil and gas industry, but in some ways, I understand where President Obama is coming from. He wants to be seen as a moderate, and being pro-gas and pro-fracking is a great counterweight to the strong actions his administration has taken to curb use of fossil fuels like coal and oil. He thinks that if only he makes a few key concessions and shows he know how to compromise, politicians from both sides of the aisle will coalesce around his proposals.

But regardless of whether you think President Obama is pursuing the right strategy, something fundamental gets lost in all of these political calculations. We lose sight of one simple fact: Water is life.

Again: Water is life. Our planet has only so much freshwater, and we can’t afford to risk poisoning any of it. We can’t afford to mess around—if there’s a chance that fracking is putting drinking water supplies at risk, then we need to stop and think seriously about why we’re doing it. Is the gas we stand to gain more valuable than the water we stand to lose?

Maybe I’m a naïve water blogger, but when it seems that most politicians haven’t even bothered to ask that question, that bothers me. When oil and gas companies are allowed to ignore the Safe Drinking Water Act and congresspeople shrug, that bothers me. When the EPA looks the other way as fracking contaminates groundwater, that bothers me.

In a way, I was relieved to leave D.C.—feeling bothered pretty much all of the time was exhausting. But the truth is, I’m still bothered, and as long as fracking is allowed to threaten our nation’s drinking water, the feeling probably won’t go away. Here’s to hoping I get another chance to do something about it.

2 thoughts on “Something in the water: The polluted politics of fracking

  1. The problem lies with the organisations that look to gain massively from fracking. They hold far too much sway over governments and the policies which they implement. In the UK fracking is becoming a more realistic possibility and the government seems to be all but ignoring the protests.

  2. Nice to meet you. I agree 100% that water is life because it is the absolute truth. What does everyone know about the so-called Dick Cheney loophole that opened up hydraulic fracturing big time? Have you heard of “list of the harmed”: a compilation of personal stories from men and women who have suffered physically from fracking where they live? If you go to YouTube type “list of the harmed” and you will find videos of these men and women. Please mention “list of the harmed” in your conversations and writings about hydraulic fracturing. These people are being ignored by the mainstream press and their stories are the essential aspect of this issue. You may also be interested in an interview at of retired Mobil executive Louis W. Allstadt which is revelatory.
    Thank you,

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