In an age when the voices and concerns of average Americans often go unheard in our political system, two small towns in upstate New York recently won an underdog victory against the oil and gas industry that should serve as a wake-up call to government officials across the nation.
Those two towns – Dryden and Middlefield – passed municipal bans on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, despite threats of lawsuits from the oil and gas industry. Industry made good on those threats, but lost in two trial courts, and on appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals. The state’s highest court held that municipalities have the right to use their long-standing zoning laws to ban oil and gas operations, including fracking.
We first learned about fracking at a local community meeting where photographic and personal accounts of the devastation wrought by fracking in Pennsylvania spurred concerned residents into action. We got involved because we wanted to protect our community and help our neighbors, and also because we don’t like bullies – especially like the oil and gas industry.
Unfortunately, fracking has spread throughout much of the nation with little if any honest consideration of the consequences. From the White House to Congress to most state governments, the oil and gas industry has successfully lobbied public officials to cave to their demands and have hired the same public relations consultants as the tobacco industry did to mire the facts about the harms of this violent drilling process.
This most egregiously dates back to the Bush-Cheney administration in 2005 when Dick Cheney met with big oil and gas to write our energy policy and delivered federal exemptions from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, on top of the existing exemptions from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Superfund law. These exemptions let industry proceed with practically no oversight and without having to disclose the secret mix of hundreds of chemicals used in the fracking process.
As the oil and gas industry is quick to point out, President Obama and his administration officials have followed in the Bush-Cheney administration’s footsteps by championing fracking. They tout it as an alternative to coal and have long minimized the impacts and threats of water contamination, air pollution, health effects and social impacts.
Now independent science is beginning to catch up to this new practice and it’s all bad news. A rapidly expanding body of hundreds of recent scientific and medical studies shows that the impacts of fracking are significant, and with millions of Americans living within a mile of fracking sites, the potential exposure is alarming.
For example, based on three years of monitoring, a Colorado School of Public Health study found air pollutants near fracking sites at levels sufficient to raise risks of cancer, neurological deficits and respiratory problems. Among the chemicals was the carcinogen benzene, which separate air monitoring has found at dangerous levels at fracking sites in states including Colorado, Pennsylvania, Utah, Texas and West Virginia.
Many studies have linked drilling and fracking activities with water contamination. When you consider the hundreds of chemicals used in fracking operations, as well as naturally occurring radioactive materials and heavy metal in the shale, that’s disturbing. It’s even worse in light of recent research indicating that rates of cement failures in well casings – the only barrier between groundwater and disastrous contamination – are actually getting worse, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a Cornell University research team. Researchers analyzed more than 75,000 official state of Pennsylvania inspections of more than 41,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2000 and determined that over 40 percent of shale fracking wells drilled after 2009 would leak into the groundwater or atmosphere, higher rates than for older, conventional wells.
As science has begun to catch up, air pollution and water contamination are just two of many harms from fracking. Others include earthquakes, high levels of radiation, noise and light pollution, significant contributions to climate change, threats to agriculture, increased crime rates and a range of health impacts.
In spite of all this, the oil and gas industry’s influence is so politically significant that Obama, Congress and most state governments remain undaunted in supporting fracking. This undue influence is not new. FDR complained about it in the 1940’s: “The trouble with this country is that you can’t win an election without the oil bloc, and you can’t govern with it.”
That makes the recent New York win in a classic David versus Goliath matchup against oil and gas interests all the more important. Not only is it a great victory for local municipal rights, it’s a tremendous victory for tens of thousands of New Yorkers who have poured their hearts and souls into protecting their communities.
But perhaps most importantly, it should serve as a wake-up call to state and federal officials across the nation that continuing to ignore community impacts from fracking is not a viable strategy.
What’s next for New York? A statewide ban that can help lead our country in the right direction - away from fracking – because air pollution, water contamination, and the health and other problems caused by fracking do not conform to municipal boundaries.
In New York, it’s heartening that most elected officials have not abandoned science and caution by yielding to the oil and gas industry’s propaganda and political influence. Governor Andrew Cuomo has kept our state’s moratorium in place and has firmly and rightly said he wants to let the science decide. Recently, the New York State Assembly overwhelmingly passed a three-year moratorium based on the call from hundreds of health professionals and medical organizations given emerging trends in the data showing harm and the need for more study.
Now it’s imperative that officials in Washington, D.C. and in other states– including Congress and Obama – wake up from the oil and gas industry-induced trance and provide true leadership on this issue. That means following the science, not the money. The health of communities across the nation and future generations is at stake. And that’s something worth fighting for.
Slottje, Esq. is the 2014 North America recipient of The Goldman Environmental Prize for her legal work on behalf of New York communities enacting local fracking bans. She lives in Ithaca, N.Y. with her husband David.