Fracking opponents just got a boost

Environmentalists have long claimed that fracking pollutes water supplies. A new report shows that they may be right, raising the stakes in an already charged battle.


Heather McMicken is not alone. The homeowner in eastern Pennsylvania received a US $1.6 million settlement from an oil company along with three other families. The reason: Their drinking water was polluted as a result of fracking. Officially called hydraulic fracturing, it is when sand and chemicals are injected underground to break apart rock and extract oil and natural gas.

Not an isolated case

Environmentalists have long claimed that fracking pollutes water supplies. On Sunday, the Associated Press published a report on data from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia that suggests people living near fracking wells may just be right in complaining about tainted water.

The four states are experiencing economic mini-booms from fracking because it creates jobs and tax revenues in rural regions that have long suffered from post-industrialisation. Fracking has also put the United States on track to becoming a net energy exporter and has helped the overall economy by reducing fuel costs.

Hundreds of complaints

But people living near fracking sites have also complained about problems with their water that echo fears raised by environmentalists in debates over whether fracking should be expanded. A portion of the chemicals used in fracking sometimes mix with underground water and find their way into drinking water supplies. The analysis published by AP also found that methane, not fracking chemicals, were often to blame for the complaints. But nonetheless, fracking appears to be connected to the residents’ problems.

In Pennsylvania last year, state officials received nearly 400 complaints about water problems. In 2012, they received almost 500 complaints. Problems includes weak water pressure as well as tainted water. State officials confirmed more than 100 cases of pollution since 2005. And yet drillers have sunk around 5,000 fracking wells since then.

Housing prices drop

A Duke University study recently found that the fracking wells are having a negative effect on the price of property. When a fracking well opens near a home that uses well water, the value drops by nearly 17 per cent. Even in American cities like Cleveland, Denver and Los Angeles where municipal water supplies – rather than individual wells – provide residents with water, people are starting to complain because fracking can destabilise the ground, causing foundations to crack. “You go to buy a home, you see that it has a well pad in the backyard,” said Environmental Defense Fund economist Elisheba Spiller. “That’s where the drop in value comes in.”

Yet the health fears, massive financial settlements and drop in property value have yet to convince fracking proponents that the practice should be abandoned. For instance, the University of Texas recently published a report saying that coal extraction used as much as 50 times more water than fracking. The authors suggest that the gains from using less water might outweigh the drawbacks of slight water pollution. And in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where debates are raging over whether to allow fracking, Mayor Dale Janway said the study illustrated the positive role fracking could play in improving local economies. “If done properly, fracking can be the vehicle that drives the economic recovery and long-term growth for our country.”

Once again it comes down to economic gain over environmental protection. Haven’t we hard this one before?


Photo credit: Nexen Inc.

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