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Coal Country and Gas Country

My Moral Dilemma for Hydrofracking

by JOHN BLAIR

Natural Gas markets have been volatile but low for the last year and a half. Just four months ago, gas bottomed out at $1.88/mmbtu and closed yesterday at just about 300% of that figure at $5.55 after nearing $6 last week. Of course that comes after prices peaking in July 08 at about $14

Issues concerning hydro fracking are beginning to have traction, at least in upper New York State where much of New York City’s drinking water is said to be at risk, as well as throughout the Marcellus Shale region.

Environmental skeptics point out that the Bush/Cheney era "exemption" from the Clean Water Act places drinking water aquifers at risk wherever fracking is done since fracking often uses hazardous chemicals to fracture the shale, which in turn releases natural gas that is collected for use on the surface.

Clearly, this exemption needs to be lifted and fracking be subject to the safety measure of the Clean Water Act.

Personally, I worry that many of the fracking chemicals which are classified as hazardous, are simply being used in the fracking process as a method of hazardous waste disposal and are not necessary for the process to work. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to know just what chemicals are being used since the fracking companies are not required to report those. It is likely the only way we will find out what chemicals are used is when they manage to escape from their geologic confines to contaminate surface or ground water or the air above the surface, if then.

Are there ways to manage the risk and keep these chemicals from polluting drinking water sources? I would think so but since there are no regulations to force that, then I would also guess that some gas operators will probably do what comes natural in a greedy society and just do whatever it takes to maximize their profits instead of being socially responsible. And, if they are caught they will hire attorneys to delay any sort of clean up, if a clean up is even possible, to extend the life of their profits. If all else fails, they will simply file for bankruptcy and walk away kind of personal or corporate responsibility, unscathed.

Less cynically, I have repeatedly asked to see data proving that fracking is actually contaminating groundwater and to determine if it is on any kind of major scale. So far, I have seen no data and am left wondering what the answer even is.

On a personal level, I am morally conflicted. I want to do everything I can humanly do to stop the advance of coal and also to reduce it current use. Residing in the middle of 15,003 megawatts of old coal fired generating capacity gives me clear motivation to change those things in my eco-region. For years, I have followed the possible use of natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel" as those inside the beltway like to call it, since it is proposed to bridge the gap between old coal and efficiency and renewables.

I remember back in 1998 going to a clean air conference which was touting gas as a replacement for coal in generating electricity.

I asked a simple question of one of the promoters of gas. "Have you studied the ‘price elasticity’ of natural gas to determine such a scenario’s impact on gas prices?" At the time gas prices were beginning to rise after a long period of being relatively cheap. His answer was a simple "Oh, I am confident there is enough to go around." I took that as a no to my question.

It turned out, of course, when Bush and Cheney took control of our energy pricing that the price and demand for natural gas would rise to new heights.

The use of fracking has changed everything. We are being told that we have at least a century worth of natural gas at a relatively low price and that has given me great ammunition for my coal fights since it makes no sense to use coal when gas is far less polluting and costs less too.

But my moral dilemma must be addressed since I desperately want to change the coal paradigm and protect my own regional health interests but I really do not want to do that by placing another burden on those who have chosen to live in "gas country."

I am convinced that the mining, processing, burning and waste disposal of coal is considerably more destructive to our collective health and that of our ecosystems than collecting natural gas through hydrofracking. But I do not desire to make a choice between two bad things.

Therefore, I do hope people will send me definitive data that illustrates drinking water contamination or not and I also hope that EPA will lift the exemption and begin to regulate the chemicals used to fracture the shale to free the gas.

That said, I will also respect anyone’s effort to protect their own regions from any environmental assault that results in permanent ecosystem destruction or ill health on their neighbors and family. I would hope others would do the same.

JOHN BLAIR is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who serves as president of the environmental health advocacy group Valley Watch in Evansville, IN. He is a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland, edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank. (AK Press) His email address is ecoserve1@aol.com