For the past seven years, the Delaware River Basin Commission has continued a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing in all areas that drain into the river. Environmentalist activist groups have praised the halt in drilling. However, it is now under threat from a group seeking to develop shale gas in the area.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial method of extracting natural gas from the shale below the Earth’s surface by fracturing shale rock with massive amounts of a water and chemical mixture.
“It occurs when a well is dug,” said David Kargbo, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering. “And the purpose of that well is to extract resources, specifically fossil fuels such as natural gas.”
Fracking would threaten the river’s surrounding ecosystem, as well as the body of water itself, which provides drinking water to about 15 million people, including Philadelphians. The Delaware River and its tributary — the Schuylkill — account for the city’s entire water supply.
Fracking should be prohibited to protect the health of Pennsylvanians, as well as the welfare of wildlife surrounding the river. A permanent ban on fracking in the Delaware River Basin needs to be instated.
In November, environmentalists became concerned about fracking when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection met with the DRBC to discuss drilling regulations. President Donald Trump’s administration has a representative on the commission, which frightened some, as Trump’s administration has not been sympathetic toward the environment — it has proposed a 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.
The protection of the river was also recently challenged by groups seeking to drill by challenging the DRBC’s regulatory authority. Luckily, a federal judge dismissed this challenge on March 23.
While natural gas is valuable, fracking to obtain it does not justify the environmental costs. The fluids used to fracture the rock have contaminated water and sterilized farmland in some cases.
An EPA report from December 2016 found that fracking had contributed to water contamination at all stages of the fracking process. This includes water withdrawals for fracking, spills during management of fracking fluids and discharge of inadequately treated wastewater.
The massive amount of water needed to frack also disrupts ecosystems.
“When water is extracted in huge quantities, say from a nearby stream, that stream contains a lot of very critical, biodiverse species that could be wiped out,” Kargbo said.
Environmentalists agree that fracking is harmful to the environment. But Michael Kilmer, a second-year environmental engineering Ph.D. student, is not convinced that the harm outweighs the possible economic benefits.
“Overall, all I’ve ever seen are benefits from the industry,” Kilmer said. “I haven’t seen enough environmental downsides compared to all the potential economic upsides.”
There is no doubt that the natural gas industry can have significant economic upsides — in fact, it supports nearly 3 million jobs. But the price for economic advancement should not be paid by our environment.
It’s also true that natural gas is a cleaner energy source than other fossil fuels. But the danger of fracking is not that the gas adversely affects climate change — though it still does, just less so than other fossil fuels — the danger is that fracking itself, as a method of extracting gas, is harmful to our water supply.
But this is not the only major issue with fracking. The EPA has already reported that fracking exposes radioactive material to the surface environment and human contact. Exposure to this radioactivity can lead to cell malfunctions from genetic mutations and cancer.
“What happens is the rocks that are present in these formations are rocks that are so old and have gone through transformations millions of years ago that have led to the formation of things like uranium and radon,” Kargbo said.
Parts of western and northeastern Pennsylvania have already been fracked heavily. We should not tolerate the growth of the industry, especially so close to home.
In order to protect the water in the Delaware River Basin and to preserve the surrounding environment, the commission should work to extend the current fracking suspension to a permanent ban.
Luke Mottola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.