Communities Push Back on Fracking

Gaining ground in the fight against controversial natural gas extraction.
Fracking New York Protest photo by Bennett V. Campbell

Albany, N.Y., residents gather April 11 for an anti-hydrofracking rally organized by Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Photo by Bennett V. Campbell.

Communities have been gaining ground in the battle over “fracking,” a controversial method of extracting natural gas that involves breaking up subterranean stone with a pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals.

Industry spokespeople insist that fracking is safe. But affected residents have long complained about its impact on the environment, and two new reports back up their claims. The first, from Democratic members of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, looks at the chemical composition of the fluids used in the process. It found that fracking liquids contained 650 different compounds identified either as carcinogens, drinking water hazards, or air pollutants.

A second study from Cornell University threw cold water on the theory that shale gas can help solve global warming. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, but fracking facilities leak lots of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The study found that the full climate impact of shale gas is so large, when measured over 20 years, that even coal would be cleaner.
Better valves and pipes would help, acknowledged Robert Howarth, the study’s lead author, but even with the best technology, “the total greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas would still be comparable to that of surface-mined coal.”

Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) said the studies add credibility to what people already know. CELDF has helped more than 110 communities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Virginia to draft legislation that bans fracking, and the idea is quietly gaining momentum. In early 2011, Mountain Lake Park, Md., and Wales, N.Y., became the first towns in their states to pass anti-fracking ordinances. Activists are pushing for similar legislation in New Mexico and Ohio.