Politics & Policy

Our Fracking Future

Fracking operation in Waynesburg, Pa.
HBO's 'Gaslands 2' and other anti-fracking efforts are fizzling.

The pro-fracking conspiracy in the United States is so vast that it evidently encompasses the Environmental Protection Agency, famously a tool of the oil and gas industry. 

The EPA just dropped its study of fracking allegedly contaminating the water in Pavillion, Wyo. The enviro left had rejoiced at the news a few years ago that the EPA had for the first time implicated fracking as a threat to groundwater. Now, amid criticisms of its methodology, the EPA has backed down and won’t issue a final report. It is handing the matter off to the state of Wyoming, which has been dubious of the EPA’s claims.

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It is one in a long series of disappointments for anti-fracking crusaders who expect at least the EPA, if no one else, to credit their crackpottery and paranoia. According to ProPublica, “environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling.” It never occurs to them that perhaps the evidence doesn’t back up the anti-fracking hysteria.

Consider a celebrated case in Parker County, Texas. Resident Steven Lipsky had methane in his drinking water. The EPA fastened on the idea that Range Resources had contaminated his well through fracking, and hit the company with an endangerment finding and remediation order. But as Mario Loyola of the Texas Public Policy Foundation recounts, the EPA couldn’t actually defend any theory whereby the fracking had polluted the well. 

Slowly, the agency retreated in ignominy. It turned out that the well wasn’t contaminated at all, but contained levels of methane typical in the area and below levels that the federal government considers a threat to health. “Area residents,” Loyola writes, “had found natural gas in their water wells years before any drilling for natural gas. Some water wells were even ‘flared’ for days after drilling, to release dangerous levels of methane. One area subdivision’s water tanks warn ‘Danger: Flammable Gas.’”

This naturally occurring methane explains the starkest evidence against fracking — a handful of flaming faucets in Colorado, supposedly rendered flammable by fracking. They were the stars of Gasland, the anti-fracking film by propagandist Josh Fox, who seeks to be the Michael Moore of natural gas. The state’s oil-and-gas commission issued a careful rebuttal explaining that in the area in question “troublesome amounts of . . . methane” had been documented in the aquifer since 1976.

None of this is to say that fracking never goes wrong. If there is a mechanical failure in a well, there will be problems. But this is true of any kind of drilling. There’s nothing uniquely dangerous about the act of fracking, which involves blasting mostly water and sand into a shale formation to create tiny fractures that release gas. This often happens 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground and far beneath any aquifers.

Fracking is such an obvious boon that it is embraced almost everywhere it is feasible. Now, Josh Fox is returning to the well, so to speak, with Gasland 2, aired on HBO. He is officially a third of the way to as many sequels as Fast and Furious. Just wait for Gasland 6: All Fracking Leads to This. He must feel like he’s made the equivalent of the 1970s scaremongering anti-nuclear movie The China Syndrome (twice), except the nuclear industry has continued to thrive. 

In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fox had to plead that his anti-fracking cause isn’t a fizzle. He could cite the ban in New York, but most states aren’t so economically self-destructive. Despite a case of methane contamination a few years ago that became a cause celebre for anti-fracking activists, then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, continued to greenlight fracking. Even Governor Jerry Brown in California is resistant to banning fracking in a state allergic to exploiting its natural resources.

Fracking is so self-evidently the future that, at times, even the EPA seems loath to try to stand in the way.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He is also the author of the recently released book Lincoln Unbound. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2013 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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