Frac, Rinse, Repeat:Why the continuing cycle of outcry, legislation, and permission is exactly what the fracking industry needs

By Hilton Price

It stands to reason that once an action is performed a million times, the people performing that action are sure to be masters. Unfortunately, for the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, doubling that number still isn’t enough. There is an estimate that more than 2.5 million frac procedures have been performed since the first reported fracking in 1947. In that time, the only thing anyone seems to have mastered is legislating and regulating the process. Considering the public opinion of fracking hasn’t warmed in the 60+ years since that first frac, the regulatory mastery doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon. Frankly, that’s exactly what the industry needs.

The first frac, conducted at the Hugoton field in southwestern Kansas, used a combination of napalm and riverbed sand as frac fluid. Since then, dozens of chemicals have been used in the process, as engineers work to find the most efficient way to get the most trapped gas from reservoirs. Many of these chemicals are as scarily named as the napalm used in the first frac, and to the ears of an uneducated public, the idea of pumping these chemicals into our planet is downright terrifying. That basic thought, that scary-sounding chemicals are being pumped into the Earth, has been a recurring thorn in the side of fracking proponents.

That wasn’t always the case. Nitrilotriethanol, for instance, is not a compound most people are familiar with. Without a specific reason to be concerned about it, the chemical can be written off in the public consciousness as easily as thiamine mononitrate. It’s just another big word that’s probably not worth worrying about. Of course, one of those big words is used in fracking fluids. The other is an ingredient in Twinkies. But on paper, they’re both big, complex words seemingly uninteresting to the average person. That unfamiliarity and un-interestingness could have kept people from concerning themselves with fracking. Then somebody’s tap water caught fire, and everything changed.

The television news media gets blamed for things often. This article is not about that. However, it’s hard to deny a direct correlation between the video of a Colorado kitchen sink shooting flames from the tap and the wave of public concern over fracking that followed. The story brought a complicated oil-retrieval procedure into the homes, minds, and conversational lexicon of a nation. However, those millions of people are not educated in the complexities of the process or the industry as a whole. Therefore, they don’t have the information needed to fully understand fracking, leading to a wave of outcry on an ocean of misunderstanding.

Enter the lawmakers! The public reaction to scary fracking headlines was echoed in a stream of legislation. Fracking moratoriums and calls for new studies are now common, with outright bans popping up with increasing frequency. From Pennsylvania to Bulgaria, many communities are saying “no” to fracking. It’s led by a wave of misinformation, from well-produced but ultimately flawed “educational” YouTube videos to a major motion picture documentary on the subject. Gasland, the film in question, has raised public awareness of fracking even higher, with a string of positive critical reviews fueling its spread. When Variety magazine calls a movie, “one of the most effective and expressive environmental films of recent years,” people look into it. Unfortunately, amid the legislation, propaganda, and what could very well be PennEnergy Workforce’s very first Variety magazine quote, a key fact is getting lost. If we want to power our homes, cars, and lives, we need energy. Fracking means more energy.

Reviewing the history of fracking and its legislation, it’s hard not to see a similarity with new pharmaceuticals. The FDA has a strict evaluation process before news drugs are released to market, but even once they hit the shelves, it often takes years before the full extent of effects are known. Likewise, new procedures in any industry are bound to see a similar timeline, but without the years of preliminary testing. There’s no agency to test fracking for a decade before it’s released for E&P companies to use. So, the testing is live and it’s been on-going for more than 60 years. That means both the successes and the failures are both very public, a fact not lost on the residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Habitable places are sometimes the sacrifices of exploration, production, and mining. The residents of Gilman, Colorado learned that fact too well in 1984, when the city was ordered abandoned by the EPA because of contaminants to ground water from zinc and iron mining. Dimock has yet to suffer the same fate, although the town’s drinking water has been contaminated by natural gas, a result linked to fracking. Right now, the city is attempting to continue its existence, and with the help of the EPA and friends and neighbors it may very well survive. No matter what happens, the city has already become another example of the dangers of the industry.

Cases like Dimock’s make it hard to fault public outcry, despite the sometimes frightening lack of real information. Fracking is relatively new, and the processes’ purveyors are still developing the best ways to do it. Having extra eyes watching this process has led to a reduced list of chemicals permitted for fracking. It’s a work in progress, but so far it has meant less potentially dangerous substances pumped into the Earth. That’s why the cycle of outcry, legislation, and permission is so important.

Until we perfect fracking procedures, there’s going to be unexpected results. Between mishaps and new revelations, there is a lot more to learn about the process. As those lessons are learned, we need a watchdog. It will keep the industry honest and maintain the best interests of our planet and the people living on it. Thanks to circumstance, that watchdog has become the public and its representatives in the government. It’s keeping fracking honest. It hasn’t stopped the outcry or the sometimes excessive legislation, but I also haven’t seen any burning tap water stories this year.

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