Francisco A. Laguna & Richard Shu
The G7 recently agreed to completely eliminate fossil fuel use by the end of the century, citing fossil fuel scarcity and the looming dangers of climate change. This decision may come as a surprise to many in America, where drivers have enjoyed low gas prices and the crisis of fossil fuel scarcity has mostly been pushed out of the national consciousness. However, continued fossil fuel use remains a pressing issue: not only are carbon emissions contributing to rising temperatures and sea levels, but the methods of extraction themselves are proving increasingly dangerous to human health. Whether the G7’s goals can be met in 85 years and what negative impacts may occur in the interim are the unknowns.
A major source of controversy and contention among big oil, the environmentalists and public and private health officials is hydraulic fracturing. Otherwise known as fracking, hydraulic fracturing is a method for extracting oil and natural gas from shale deposits. It involves cracking the earth with pressurized water in order to bring the fuel deposits up to the surface. Before fracking, the fuel found in shale deposits was considered inaccessible. Post-fracking, America has enjoyed a glut of natural gas — mostly butane — released from shale. By 2010, the number of natural gas wells in the US had reached 510,000, nearly double the 2000 figure of 276,000. Every year, 13,000 new operations are begun, mostly in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes and the Marcellus Shale deposit that runs along the Appalachian basin.
Compared to coal and oil, butane burns relatively cleanly. Short-term, however, the fallout from the fracking boom has been disastrous for public health. The fracking process releases toxic chemicals like methane and benzene into the local groundwater, rendering the water unfit for human consumption. Images of water flowing from faucets and catching fire have done little to ease the mind of the public. Roughly 15.3 million Americans, more than the entire population of New York City, are affected by this pollution. Unfortunately, big oil has lobbied successfully to avoid legislative requirements to reveal the exact chemicals and other ingredients used in drilling operations. Competing factors such as inexpensive energy and fuel, job creation and the sometimes large pay-outs to landowners for mining rights have done little to encourage legislators to act proactively.
The fallout from reckless fracking is immediate, much more so than the slow damage wrought by global warming. Groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania is unlikely to concern someone living in California, especially if Californians are enjoying inexpensive gas as a result. But, in due time, everyone will suffer the consequences of climate change. The only thing that the fracking boom has done is delay the inevitable, or at least put it out of everyone’s minds. In finding a nice-seeming short term solution in clean natural gas, we have forgotten just why fossil fuel dependency was so dangerous in the first place. The new supply of oil from Iran soon to flood the market will further mask the problem and delay implementing new strategies for global fossil fuel independence.
The fracking case is interesting in that we see real time hazards being immediately challenged with legislative actions. As soon as methane was detected in the water, there were lawsuits and regulations aplenty, mostly at the local or state level. It serves as proof for our intuition: legislators and courts respond better to concrete, urgent threats than to long-term threats. However, these responses are defensive, only reacting to an event that has already occurred, the total, possible negative impacts of which are often misunderstood.
A larger problem is that every state approaches fracking differently. In the same month that the Maryland General Assembly passed a moratorium on new drilling permits and tightened its scrutiny on existing fracking sites, an Ohio judge struck down a countywide fracking ban. These sorts of case-by-case legislative fixes and court decisions are nothing new for our legal system. However, they currently stand as one of the few places where the dominion of big oil is being challenged. If the United States is to begin a concerted movement away from big oil, it will need something more definite than a smattering of state-level decisions to do so. And until global warming is firmly established as a serious, urgent threat, we will make no progress.
TransLegal has worked in various countries, including Brazil and Colombia, on issues related to alternative to fossil fuels, including biofuels. Call us with your questions.