New attention on tracking fracking

Fracking Site in Warren Center, PA 2013 image by Ostroff Law, Creative Commons

Fracking Site in Warren Center, PA
2013 image by Ostroff Law, Creative Commons

Critics of hydrolic fracturing, or “fracking,” generally have two main objections. 1) The practice puts groundwater at risk. 2) The chemicals used have adverse effects on the environment and human health.

Other concerns come to mind too, such as: could cause earthquakes, uses up too much valuable fresh water and continues reliance on carbon fuels which contribute to climate change.

But “how might that hurt me and mine?” tends to grab the most attention.

Fracking supporters assert that proper application of the latest technology is a reasonably safe trade-off for an important new source of domestic energy. With attendant jobs and economic prosperity.

As written up in Grist and the Smithsonian Magazine, a citizen scientist effort is underway that uses satellite images to locate regions that should be studied for possible health impact.

From the Grist summary:

For researchers like Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, homing in on these spots is crucial to understanding whether or not fracking really makes people sick.

Schwartz and his colleagues are currently working with the Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System to comb through the medical records of more than 400,000 patients across the state. They’re looking for any correlation between fracking sites and increased respiratory and neonatal health problems — and they needed to know just how close their patients were living to fracking sites.

Mapping where fracking is taking place is relying on new tools offered by SkyTruth and FrackFinder.

It’s a big, unwieldy task, using a new approach. Where did SkyTruth come from anyway? As explained in Richard Schiffman’s Smithsonian article:

SkyTruth is the brainchild of John Amos, a geologist who began his career analyzing satellite images to advise oil and gas companies where to drill. He noticed that the photos revealed a lot more than just promising geological formations. Amos saw oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Australia and massive clear cuts hacked out of the vast boreal forests of Siberia—deforestation rivaling what is happening in the Amazon in scale.

“What really pushed me over the edge emotionally,” says Amos, “was looking at satellite imagery of western Wyoming, where I got my Master’s degree.” He was shocked to see that an area that had been pristine rangeland when he was going to school during the mid-1980s was, just 10 years later, “a spider’s web of drilling sites, pipelines and access roads.” Public lands had been totally converted for industrial use.

“I wondered why these pictures weren’t on the front pages of the major newspapers of the world,” says Amos. “People need to see this.”

Indeed, that became SkyTruth’s motto: If you can see it, you can change it.

The public is rightfully skeptical of scientific studies funded by an interested party. SkyTruth and FrackFinder are doing something based on civic concern, which is arguably better than doing nothing. But research carried out in association with anti-fracking groups may be dismissed as biased too. The general public is often left trying to choose between battling experts on opposite sides of a wide divide.

Where are the reliable, neutral, authoritative referees on this highly contentious issue?

What do you want done in this regard? What source(s) will you trust?

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29 Comments on “New attention on tracking fracking”

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  1. Michael Greer says:

    I would add a 3rd reason to the first paragraph….That the damage done to the soils and the fresh water resource is permanent. There is no un-doing of a pollution problem created hundreds of feet below the surface, and the energy companies will dodge that cost forever.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “Where are the reliable neutral, authoritative referees on this highly contentious issue?”

    I think these are the people who are shoved aside in all sorts of debates (climate change, tobacco and cancer, PCB’s…) by monied interests. I find it refreshing to have a chance for the general public to take an active part in the research through citizen science initiatives. Actually doing the science will likely give better insight to the people who participate.

  3. You want neutral, authoritative research by professional scientists? Here’s the compendium that cites hundreds of studies.

  4. The Original Larry says:

    “Where are the reliable, neutral, authoritative referees on this highly contentious issue?”

    There aren’t any.

  5. Ken Hall says:

    “The general public is often left trying to choose between battling experts on opposite sides of a wide divide.”

    This is the fictitious concept which the monied/corporate interests con and/or force (through ownership) the media (non-free press) into convincing the general public, exists. In reality the true unbiased experts/scientists are ofttimes in the overwhelming majority and are heckled, scorned, ., ., . and ridiculed primarily by a minority of corporate/monied interest toadies whom while possibly in, or not in, possession of advanced education credentials ofttimes have little or no direct work or experience concerning the subjects at hand. The media, being of sound mind when it comes to the biting of the hand which feeds them, routinely “balances” opposing opinions concerning subjects such as smoking, terrorism, global warming, ., ., . and fracking by playing real scientific determinations off against these paid for “opinions” which have but one intent, to “conserve” and/or increase the bank accounts of the egregiously wealthy.

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    Ken Hall is exactly right. Science is consistently denigrated by a deleterious combination of corporate propaganda and our uniquely American propensity to celebrate a sort of “common folk” dumbing down, a pride in ignorance: ” I know just as well as those damned scientists.” This combination may well be our undoing.

    This disrespect of science is utterly incomprehensible to me. How a generation that has seen their world transformed by the astonishing power of scientific inquiry and research – from the digital age to the revolutions in health and medicine that redefined quality of life – can fail to rely upon it now as the best information source we have, passes any rational understanding.

  7. The Original Larry says:

    The operative word was “neutral”. It hardly demonstrates neutrality to condemn anything that diverges from liberal orthodoxy. On the other hand, isn’t that how it always works? Any opposition is immediately branded as anti-scientific, denial based, serving monied interests, evil or just plain stupid. No debate, I guess.

  8. The Original Larry says:

    In the interest of neutrality, can someone please enlighten us on who is funding the anti-fracking movement? 10 minutes on the Internet turned up the Park Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, George Soros, the United Arab Emirates and the Russian government. Nice representation from the “egregiously wealthy”!

  9. Walker says:

    Right, Larry, it’s always a good idea to follow the money. And to the extent that the UAE and Russia are funding some parts of the anti-fracking movement, that is worrisome.

    But Park Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council? Sure, there may be money from very wealthy people in those organizations. But that’s not the same as saying that George Soros and Roy Park (or his heirs) have anything to gain by stopping fracking. And what does it profit the Natural Resources Defense Council to stop fracking?

  10. Mervel says:

    Its a complex topic.

    Fracking to the degree it reduces or eventually eliminates all coal production in the US by flooding the market with cheap and less dirty natural gas; can be seen as a net positive for the environment. We won’t get reductions in greenhouse gases without natural gas playing a role and the elimination of electrical plants utilizing coal.

    However, my main concern is the application of regulations and regulation of the industry in general. We don’t do a good job of regulating industries right now, period. I would like to see a large increase in the dollars allocated to funding regulation enforcement of all energy production in the US but particularly fracking.

  11. Mervel says:

    That’s not stopping fracking its not anti-energy either, it is simply saying obey the law. Right now I don’t think energy companies are obeying the current laws. There is an interesting series on regulation of the coal industry on NPR.

  12. The Original Larry says:

    Foreign governments (especially two of the most repressive governments now operating) funding parts of the American environmental movement is a bit more than worrisome, it’s downright frightening. As for George Soros, charter member of the hedge fund hall of fame, it doesn’t take a financial genius to see how he could profit from funding the anti-fracking movement. You would have to be blind not to see it.

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m not sure why a science paid for by foreign governments is so frightening, science is science. When I studied science they didn’t talk about American Science vs foreigner science, and that’s a good thing too because some pretty important science happened before 1776. And math too, which is pretty important for science. Nobody has ever told me not to use a zero because it was the intellectual spawn of future terrorist Arabs. Science is like making pudding, the proof is in the tasting.

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Please pass the pudding not made with fracking fluid.

  15. The Original Larry says:

    “Science” paid for by foreign governments, to increase the value of their resources, is not science. I amazed that people do not see that the Russians and the Emirates have a vested interest in US energy supply and policy.

  16. Walker says:

    But “science” paid for by petroleum companies to increase the value of their resources is just fine?

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    what people dont seem to understand about science is that it doesn’t take sides. Science is neutral. But science can be misused or misunderstood.
    Business or partisans will often play up a small finding in a very big story, sort of like the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.
    Except in the story of businessman and the blind men and the elephant the businessman directs all the blind men to touch only one part of the elephant and ignore all the rest.

    And before you get all wonky, sometimes environmentalists do that too.

  18. The Original Larry says:

    When did “science” become an immutable collection of truth? When the Russian government paid for it? Not then, nor when the Koch Brothers paid for it. The original question here is “Where are the reliable, neutral, authoritative referees on this highly contentious issue?” And I still think there aren’t any. It amazes me that so many people only see evil intent on the Right and won’t admit it comes from both sides.

  19. Walker says:

    Larry, granted that George Sorros could make money, briefly, if he could push the price of a commodity down. But you really think that’s why he’s funding Global Warming activism?

    And whatever he could make hedging bets on falling commodity prices pales to insignificance compared to what petroleum companies can make selling their products, products which will cause all of us grief in the long run.

    Where are the reliable, neutral, authoritative referees on this highly contentious issue? Again, follow the money. How is the Park Foundation going to get rich funding bogus anti-fracking research?

  20. mervel says:

    Well I think there certainly is concern about the US becoming a net energy exporter which we are on track to do by sometime next year. If you think of it; at that point the tables are totally turned on all sides of the political debate about energy, the environment and our dependence on overseas oil; which will have ended. If we can continue our oil/natural gas boom in the US, we can effectively shut down all coal production in the US and possibly other parts of the globe as we flood the market with cheap and cleaner natural gas. This can only be a good thing for the environment as a whole.

    The issue is going to be regulating this industry effectively, and they will only be gaining more influence as they grow, that will be the challenge. But I think tracking where fracking is happening is a good thing and indeed communities deciding if they want to be part of this or not? I think many will choose to opt out, many others will want the benefits.

  21. Walker says:

    “This can only be a good thing for the environment as a whole.”

    Well, except that it’s still putting carbon into the atmosphere, and helping to keep fossil fuel prices down. Think what a boon it would be to the future of your children if we put really serious money into developing solar energy instead of pouring it into carbon-based energy sources. And then there’s all the fresh water ruined by fracking. How long will it be before that comes back to haunt us?

  22. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Pretty much all of the reliable, sensible advocates on this issue state that it is in our best interest as a whole to move as quickly as possible to renewable forms of energy. Ask the military, ask the insurance companies, even ask the energy producers themselves including the manufacturers of solar panels, turbines, heat pumps, etc.

  23. The Original Larry says:

    Lets not hang a halo on George Soros just yet. Nothing he does is insignificant, and all of it is to his profit. You’re right about one thing, though, he may make a profit briefly, as he did in ’92 when he made £1 billion on “Black Wednesday” by short selling the British pound. If you still trust Soros, do some research and see what Krugman has had to say about him.

  24. mervel says:

    Natural gas is better than coal, but yeah it is not perfect environmentally.

    The thing is “we” are not pouring money into carbon based fuels, they are turning a profit, they cost less to produce than we are willing to pay. This is not true of other wind or solar. Until wind and solar are price competitive its a losing battle. We can pour money into them, but by having to prop them up artificially it just shows that they are not ready.

    I think we should charge a carbon tax due to the pollution and the health and environmental costs of carbon, however even with that, it would still likely be less expensive than alternative forms of energy at least right now. We could put some money into research that would reduce the costs of producing alternative energy. But in the long run it is the only answer, the question is what is the long run?

  25. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A carbon tax is sensible since the costs of using carbon are not factored into the market. It is no different to give renewable fuels a cost incentive than it is to give fossil fuel companies subsidies. But the real story that few seem to know about is that our efforts at conservation and efficiency have been very effective. Fuel economy standards, energy star appliance standards, better energy code requirements for buildings, even more efficient light bulbs have been the real story in bringing our nation to the verge of energy self-sufficiency. And we can do much better on efficiency without much effort.

  26. Ken Hall says:

    knuck, you purport that “our nation is on the verge of energy self-sufficiency”. I maintain that this is a pipe dream in as much as today we import nearly 7 million barrels of crude and refined oil per day. We have had a net importation of oil into the US every year since about 1910. We have reduced our daily consumption from a high of about 21 million barrels per day, in 2006, to a bit less than 19 million barrels per day today, subsequent to the economic “recession” which began in late 2007 and continues through today. I doubt that the higher mileage and energy star appliances are contributing nearly as much to the 2 million barrel per day reduction of total consumption as the tripling and then some of the retail price of fuel. Nothing gets folks to conserve as does not having jobs so as to earn the funds to enable one to joy ride at will and heat your house to the point that you and the kids can run about in your Daisey Duke shorts in mid-Winter.

  27. Walker says:

    Larry, where did I propose hanging a halo on George Soros? I’m just saying that it seems exceedingly unlikely that he is funding anti-fracking organizations in order to profit from their work, which stands in contrast to the oil companies seeking to convince people that fracking is clean and good.

  28. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Ken, I agree that the “energy energy “self-sufficiency” as people are defining it today is nowhere near where we should be.
    For instance, we could build thousands of coal fired power plants and have everyone drive an electric car and be “energy self-sufficient” but that would not likely be a positive outcome. But still, the economy has been growing and our energy use is down. That is positive.

    People often complain that environmentalists are all doom and gloom all the time. Just trying to turn that frown upside down for a moment before I pick up my “The End Is Near” placard and go protest somewhere.

  29. mervel says:

    Next year will be very interesting in the energy markets. Ken is right for most of our history we have been a net oil importer, but he is not factoring in the massive boom in energy production we are currently experiencing, the predictions all say that we should be able to be a net oil/gas exporter over the next several years.

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