Teach-in lectures end with a discussion on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
The Dissent in America Teach-In series wrapped up another year Friday, April 20, with a visit from Brady Russell, director of Eastern Pennsylvania Clean Water Action. Russell led a compelling discussion on the controversial “fracking” process and its effect on Pennsylvania’s environment.
Fracking is a term, and controversy, that many have heard of but few understand. The recent surge in media and political attention has brought this gas-drilling process – and the problems it causes – center stage in heated political and environmental debates.
Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is the process used by many natural gas companies to retrieve gas deposits contained in subsurface rocks, Russell explained. Although techniques vary, grossly oversimplified, fracking involves drilling several miles underground to gas deposits trapped in rock layers, and subsequently pushing water down the drill holes in order to fracture the rock and release the gas.
The biggest problem with the process, Russell said, is not the drilling, but the water that is used to fracture the rock. Jammed underground at extreme pressure, this water is laden with toxic chemicals, such as lethal ethylene-glycol and diesel fuel, that aid in fracturing rock layers.
After releasing the gas, the water is pushed back up through the drill hole at enormous pressure. Some argue its toxic chemicals can easily make their way in to drinking supplies.
These chemicals, although miniscule in concentration, can have enormous effects on the communities they touch.
“You’ll hear [gas companies] say [the chemicals] are less than a half of a percent of the total amount of water that goes in to the ground. Tiny, tiny fraction,” Russell said. “Yeah, it’s only half a percent. But that half a percent actually outvotes the other 99.5 percent in terms of toxicity.”
A great hurdle in regulatory efforts is that directly correlating water pollution to the fracking process is difficult. The important thing to remember, Russell said, is that the way in which the water is polluted is irrelevant to the greater issue itself.
“There’s lots of ways for this really nasty, dirty water to get in to our water supply…from the perspective of an environmentalist, we don’t really care where the contamination comes from,” he added. “What we care about is the contamination is happening…everywhere that fracking happens, we start to see people’s water change.”
Charles Hansler, a junior political science major, said this fact alone makes the fracking issue an especially important one among the Temple community.
“Living in Pennsylvania…we get that drinking water,” Hansler said. “We shower in it, we need to drink [it].”
Although at its heart, fracking is an environmental issue, legislative red tape has made it into a political problem. False reports, lying, side-stepping lax regulations are all part of companies’ games, Russell said. With few laws in place, natural gas companies have been allowed relatively free reign as far as drilling locations, contaminated-water disposal, and chemical handling is concerned.
“Whatever you hear this industry say, take it with a grain of salt, because we catch them lying all the time,” Russell said. “That’s how [they] operate.”
Sophomore political science major Kelsey Platner walked away from Russell’s talk with a new understanding of the fracking controversy, and was shocked at the facts he presented.
“Previously, I didn’t really know much about it,” said Platner. “The whole concept of drilling the natural gas and all the contamination, it’s just scary.”
As fracking continues to be a disputed topic in both state and federal legislatures, the cooperation of both companies and politicians will be imperative to change. A key factor, Russell said, is getting involved. Citing the term “fractivism,” Russell encouraged all who were disturbed by fracking’s effects to take action.
Platner agreed that activism is the best way to inspire changes.
“We are the next generation who’s going to be making these decisions,” she said. “It’s really important for us, growing up. We’re old enough to understand it, young enough to do something about it.”
Ali Watkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.