Ramtin Arablouei, HEFN’s Program Manager, authored this post. Ramtin joined HEFN in 2007 and staffs HEFN’s working group on fracking. You can read more of his writing here.
The word “fracking” has been all over the media over the last few years. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is the technical shorthand for the process that extracts natural gas and oil from deep inside the earth. Fracking* has facilitated a boom in natural gas drilling, but it also comes with many risks and disadvantages. These risks have caused concern among many foundations that now are funding efforts to regulate or ban fracking. Why should you pay attention?
1) It’s coming to a town near you. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration there are currently 36 states with “shale plays” that are being fracked or explored for possible fracking. Most states are not on the sidelines of this serious industrial activity. Is your state in the mix?
2) Fracking is making people sick. While research has focused on the environmental impacts, it’s clear that there are public health impacts as well. The pollution of air and water in communities near fracking sites has been documented in both anecdotal stories and studies. What’s happening? Disproportionate levels of asthma, cancers, frequent headaches, and nosebleeds have been reported in fracking communities. Why? For starters, fracking is excluded from portions of the Federal Clean Air and Water Acts and host of other federal and state regulations. In the past, inadequate oversight of energy industries has not gone well (see Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill). And as one public health expert writes, “there is no fence line community when it comes to fracking.” This industrial activity is occurring in residential areas without significant buffers to protect families from pollution.
3) It’s making communities sick too. There is growing evidence about the health and environmental impacts of fracking, but not enough people are talking about the other social impacts. With a sudden increase in drilling comes an influx of itinerant workers. Often, these workers live in small enclaves which locals call “man camps.” Many localities are seeing dramatic increases in violence, drunk driving, drug use, theft, housing shortages, and prostitution in, and near, towns with active fracking. Outrageous? Read about what happened in Williston, North Dakota after fracking began there.
4) Fracking is eroding town rights. The state legislature of Pennsylvania usurped the power of local municipalities to set the laws to regulate drilling when they passed Act 13. The law, which takes away the power of local townships to regulate or tax fracking, is currently being challenged in the State Supreme Court. Some Republicans and Democrats believe that these provisions violate the Pennsylvania constitution. And similar laws have been proposed in New York. To learn more about the specifics of the law read this summary by the National Resources Defense Council.
5) It’s eroding homeowner’s rights too. In order to gain access to shale from landowners not interested in leasing their property, gas companies have taken advantage of “split estate” laws which allows companies to purchase the mineral rights to land and drill without the homeowner’s permission. Split estate laws were mostly passed during the industrial boom of the late 19th century, but they are being used now in many states to facilitate gas drilling. (Sound unbelievable? Read the story of Vince and Jeanne Rhea in this recent Reuters article.)
6) Fracking could be worse for climate change than coal. Many environmentalists have supported the expansion of hydraulic fracturing based on the assumption that gas is a lower-carbon alternative to coal or oil. While burning natural gas as a fuel does produce less carbon dioxide than coal and oil, it also emits large amounts of methane. There is scientific consensus that methane is a more destructive greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A recent Cornell University study concludes that methane leakage from fracking sites has the potential to be twice as damaging as greenhouse gas emissions from coal. There is more research to be done on this topic but we know one thing for sure: calling natural gas clean is an overstatement.
7) Fracking could be what’s for dinner. Many of the fracking wells in states like Pennsylvania are located in rural areas that are dotted with farms producing fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat for the surrounding areas. Contamination of local water sources have been a major problem in gas-rich areas like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Alberta, Canada. A 2012 Cornell University study linked fracking wastewater with mortality in farm animals. Many cases of cattle death in farms near fracking sites have been reported in Pennsylvania. One of the largest food co-ops in the country, located in Brooklyn, NYC, has publicly stated they will not order food products from New York farms that are near fracking sites, expressing great fear of contaminated products.
Funders who are concerned about the impacts of fracking on health, environments and communities are working together at the Health & Environmental Funders Network Hydrofracking Working Group. To learn more, contact Ramtin Arablouei. To learn more about fracking, check out HEFN’s briefing, Drilling Deeper.
*Advocates have adopted the term “fracking” to refer to the entire process of unconventional gas extraction from exploration to processing. We are similarly adopting the term for this article.
This week, Lauren Davis, program associate for the 11th Hour Project and co-chair of HEFN’s Hydrofracking Working Group, guest blogs. Lauren splits her time between the 11th Hour Project’s work on human rights and its energy-related work on issues related to oil, gas, and hydraulic fracturing.
In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that makes it state policy to protect every Californian’s right to safe, clean water. CA Assembly Bill 685 reads that “it is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” My hope was that the state I live in would finally regulate or ban high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking” — a process fraught with threats to our precious water resources (see here[i] and here).
This was an optimistic moment after a depressing legislative year around fracking, which is almost entirely unregulated in California. Back in May, the State Senate rejected a bill that would have simply notified residents if fracking was going to occur within 300 feet of their home. In August, CA AB 591 and CA AB 972 aimed to require the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluid or place a moratorium on the practice until regulations were put into place; both died on the Senate floor. After so many defeats, last month’s water rights bill gave me hope that California would begin to see fracking through the prism through which 11th Hour has begun to think about it.
The 11th Hour Project began researching fracking in early 2010 and started grantmaking around the topic in mid-2011. Around that time, we also launched a new program dedicated to human rights, focused primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Human Rights program was the first at our organization to dive deeply into the international landscape. We quickly realized that our efforts in the developing world might prompt different questions and require new metrics than the ones we use to evaluate our domestic initiatives. But should it? Our work in the DRC is motivated by two simple goals: to increase dignity for all people in that country, and to bring justice to those who are suffering at the hands of the powerful. These goals felt instinctual the more we learned about the country and its complicated history, and they felt imperative as a part of a program under the label, “human rights.”
However, when we characterize our work on fracking, focused domestically in places like New York or Pennsylvania through our Renewable Energy/Climate Change program, we often speak about carbon emissions, public health threats or pressure from fossil fuel industries. Increasingly, other funders who work on climate change issues have narrowed their focus to analyzing the fugitive methane emissions from hydrofracking, while conservation-focused peers emphasize the importance of protecting “special places” like national parks or sensitive ecosystems.
But the most powerful stories coming out of communities hardest hit by the harsh realities of shale development rarely, if ever, mention “fugitive emissions” or “parts per million.” If they do refer to a “special place,” it’s usually the family backyard, or the creek where they first learned to fish.
Here at 11th Hour Project, we have begun to think of our fracking work as preserving the dignity of New Yorkers in frack-free communities or fighting for justice for Pennsylvanians harassed by the natural gas industry. We aim to protect the basic human right to clean, safe water, a right more difficult to preserve with global climate change. This view of our work increases our dedication to grantmaking that benefits local organizations and local community efforts. We believe that these fights are personal and that some of the most effective efforts highlight how peoples’ lives are being affected.
Hearing news of Gov. Brown’s support for Californian’s rights to clean water, I was curious if other states had dedicated themselves to this ideal. Turns out, there are a few other states that have taken this same step, including Pennsylvania. I came across this gem from section 27 of Pennsylvania’s constitution: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.” It’s time to change the narrative around fracking and hold Pennsylvania, California — and every other state — to higher standards. Fracking is infringing on basic human rights across the country. And whether you’re in Central Africa or Western Pennsylvania, preserving these rights should be central to our efforts.
[i] This report by the Pacific Institute was funded by The 11th Hour Project