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When hydraulic fracturing makes it to HBO primetime, it’s pretty fair to say there’s buzz.
But while viewers got the chance to kick back and relax to Josh Fox’s “Gasland” last June, political leaders and ordinary citizens across the country have been working hard to prevent the film’s grim scenarios from spreading.
They’re having some success, partly because of increased publicity for the dangers of fracking. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to reassess the impact of hydraulic fracking on drinking water.
Their study should be complete by 2012.
Rachel Zurer has more on citizen initiatives to stop the negative impacts of hydraulic fractures — ideally, before they even start.
ZURER: Battlement Mesa, Colorado boasts spectacular scenery on the banks of the Colorado river. It’s also a hot-bed of natural gas activism. Though it doesn’t look it, in a sense, Battlement Mesa, Colorado, has always been a community focused on energy. In the 1980s, Exxon carved out this unincorporated corner of western Colorado to be a company town. Then Exxon’s oil shale drilling project collapsed. Battlement Mesa reinvented itself, as the perfect place to retire.
LIGHT: The thing that I hear from everybody in Colorado when I say I live in Battlement Mesa, they say do you play golf? Because the golf course here is one of the highly rated courses in Colorado.
ZURER: That’s Paul Light. He’s a 78-year-old former social scientist from Philadelphia who took the retirement bait. In 2004, he and his wife bought a home in Battlement Mesa, where they planned to spend the rest of their lives.
LIGHT: If I knew then what I know now, we would never have purchased a house here.
ZURER: What Light knows now is that in a way, Battlement Mesa never stopped being an energy community. Though the subdivision has grown to over 5,000 residents, all the mineral rights that Exxon once owned are still active throughout the area. And in summer 2009, a company called Antero Resources announced that it planned to drill for natural gas right within Battlement Mesa.
LIGHT: It was really a surprise to about uh, I think maybe 400 people or so gathered in the um activities center gym to hear this report from Antero…That night we learned that our future would involve 200 natural gas wells, to be drilled over several years. Starting, um, it was supposed to start this year. But because of some of the questions we raised, that’s been delayed.
ZURER: The “we” Light is referring to is Battlement Concerned Citizens, a group of around 75 residents, mostly retirees, who felt angry at the prospect of having natural gas wells as close as 500 feet from their homes. Many had heard horror stories from people living near wells elsewhere in the county. Stories of leaks, explosions, health problems, drinking water contamination…This 2004 home video uploaded by one concerned resident nearby shows someone lighting a local creek on fire.
VIDEO: [water noise] Alright, you ready? sound of match strike and creek
ZURER: The video shows a man in a sleeveless vest placing an aluminum funnel over a spot where gas bubbles up from the creek bank. He lights a match, and the funnel flares like a volcano.
VIDEO: Now this is 12 inches high, and the flame’s going up probably another 12 inches, so you got 2 feet there. [fade ambi]
ZURER: Being able to light a local creek on fire was just one of the things that led a group of Battlement Mesa citizens to take action. Them decided to petition county and state authorities to ensure that residents would stay safe and healthy if and when drilling started.
LIGHT: We could probably carry a petition and get a lot of signatures for people to say we don’t want any drilling here, but it wouldn’t have any affect. This was one that we felt might make a difference. And so people, we got the signatures by a group of probably 20-30 people just carrying them in all the neighborhoods, asking people if they wanted to sign. With a handout explaining what we were asking for. And we did that within a few days.
ZURER: The petition worked. The county agreed to fund a health assessment, to be completed in time for consideration as part of Antero’s permitting process. Rachel Waldholz is a reporter who covered the situation in Battlement Mesa for the western environmental magazine High Country News. She says that though the study won’t be binding on anyone, it’s still a pretty big deal.
WALDHOLZ: This is the first time that regulators have had to make this decision with a detailed health study in front of them. Normally, health isn’t sort of taken into account quite this formally.
ZURER: In addition to setting an important precedent, the Battlement Mesa study could help address a larger issue. Waldholz points out that nationwide, there’s lack of studies about the impacts of natural gas drilling on the folks who live nearby.
WALHOLZ: Researchers know, you know they’ll know some of the chemicals that are used, so they’ll know some of the health impacts with some of those chemicals, but they don’t really know, sort of like, how much people are exposed to, or over what time period or what at what concentrations, or what all those chemicals do if you’re exposed to all of them together.
ZURER: The Battlement Concerned Citizens hope the county health assessment, and a second, longer-term study the county has agreed to, will help start to fill in those information gaps. But if scientists don’t know exactly how gas drilling affects people, at least part of the blame goes to the fact that under federal law, energy companies are not required to reveal what chemicals they’re using for fracking. Maurice Hinchey, a democratic congressman from New York State, wants to change that. Hinchey is one of the sponsors of federal legislation called the FRAC act, which would require such disclosure.
HINCHEY: If you’re going to be drilling for materials and you are inserting chemicals in the context of your drilling, you have to be honest about what you’re doing. You have to tell, publicly, what you are injecting into the ground.
ZURER: The FRAC Act would also undo a regulatory loophole, created by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempts the fracking industry from the rules of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
HINCHEY: This is one of the main responsibilities of government. To make life safe and secure. Make it healthy. Make it positive in as many ways as possible.
ZURER: The FRAC act seems to have stalled in committee, in the face of strong opposition from the fracking industry. It may be that for now, the most effective pushback against the dangers of hydraulic fracturing will happen at the state level. Wyoming has passed regulations which, like the FRAC act, require that companies divulge what’s in the fracking fluids they use. And in Hinchey’s home state of New York, a heated fight is roiling.
[Chanting] No fracking way! No fracking way! (Ambi continues under TRX)
ZURER: New York state has never been a major energy producer, but experts say hydraulic fracturing could unlock an enormous natural gas supply from the Marcellus Shale formation, which lies underneath much of the south west part of the state —including the area that supplies the drinking water to New York City. In January 2010, protestors filled the lobby of the New York state capital in Albany, demanding a moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking. [Fade ambi] Bills to do just that sit in the state legislature, unlikely to move. So many activists are concentrating their energy not on new laws but on the arcane twists and turns of bureaucracy. Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountain Keeper, explains.
GILLINGHAM: New York’s regulations were outdated, so we pressured the governor to do a supplemental to the generic environmental impact statement, basically the permit condition that industry has to follow when they are applying for putting in the development.
ZURER: Plans for major new fracking developments are on hold for now, while officials at New York’s DEC, or Department of Environmental Conservation, create regulations specific to fracking. Last year’s draft of the new rules assumed that existing drilling regulations were keeping people safe. But Walter Hang says that’s a false premise, based on what he dug up in government documents about drilling sites in New York. He runs a data-mining business called Toxics Targeting.
HANG: And what we found was that there had been literally hundreds and hundreds of fires, explosions, homes that had to be evacuated, polluted water supply wells, and a whole host of pollution releases that had never really come to light.
ZURER: Hang criticized the agency’s new rules in a letter which called for the DEC to start over from scratch. That letter has now been signed by nearly 10,000 people. Even the federal Environmental Protection Agency weighed in, recommending the DEC revise its regulations in partnership with the New York Department of Health. Hang, again.
HANG: So it remains to be seen whether or not the de facto moratorium will continue, and for how long, given that this entire draft may be withdrawn. That’s what we’re really pushing for.
ZURER: Hang says the last time the state overhauled its energy rules, the process took twelve years. From the halls of congress to the golf course of Battlement Mesa, efforts to reign in the dangers of fracking all seem to have one thing in common: information. Having it is power, and asking for more seems to be the best tactic anyone has found. As the term “hydraulic fracturing” moves from the pages of Natural Gas World to the pages of the New York Times, citizens are demanding the right to know what’s happening in their communities and in their bodies. And they’re hoping their governments get the message: It’s government’s job to keep citizens safe.
For Making Contact, I’m Rachel Zurer.