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Can Fracking Ever Be Done Safely?

Assurances that fracking can be done safely through regulation should be seen as mass sedatives, not real protection.

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What does this consist of? In Pennsylvania, there has been little foresight, minimal collection of data, poor enforcement, and even harassment of citizens, as when attendees at a public Gasland screening were placed on a Homeland Security watch list. This year, the PA legislature passed Act 13, an ALEC-template bill, which gave drillers license to drill anywhere, and prevented doctors from revealing to patients the fracking chemicals found in their blood. In late July, a court struck down parts of Act 13 as unconstitutional.

No amount of PR can hide the industry’s visible actions, which former PA governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, warned about at a 2011 Pennsylvania Shale Conference. Pointing to 100 violations committed by drillers, Rendell contended that the industry had hurt its own public image. Citizens who question fracking are “rais​ing serious and legit​i​mate issues,” he said. “They express the fears of not just a few mil​i​tants, but the fears of a lot of good, hard-working Penn​syl​va​ni​ans.” 

But his call to industry accountability was ignored. This past week, the drillers descended into issuing slurs, via billboards mounted in Pennsylvania that characterize environmentalists as “green slime.” But in response, many citizens donned T-shirts and sported signs proudly declaring themselves to be “green slime,” transforming the would-be insult into a badge of honor.

With the industry’s stubborn response to any criticism, it’s evident why some experts contend that regulations can never work. This is no novelty. Regulation-defiant industries across diverse sectors have undermined government regulation of a whole host of products and industries, including toxic chemicals, genetically modified organisms, and many more. This happens consistently despite the lip service politicians pay to doing fracking, GMOs, or whatever…“safely.”

Enter Mayor Bloomberg and the Environmental Defense Fund

NYC Mayor Bloomberg is the one currently attempting to “do fracking safely” by bypassing the pesky political process and deploying personal largesse. He gave a $30 million donation to the Environmental Defense Fund, charging it with crafting regulations. The EDF supports fracking because it’s not “going away any time soon.” So says Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for the EDF Energy Program, who acknowledges that fracking “can never be made entirely safe; like any intensive industrial activity, it involves risks. But having studied the issue closely, we are convinced that if tough rules, oversight and penalties for noncompliance are put in place, these risks become manageable.” 

“I can write up the best possible regulations on paper,” says Albert Appleton, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and an international consultant on environmental sustainability, “But is industry going to play ball? No one can compel this powerful industry to comply. For them, it’s the cost of doing business to do what they do, and pay the fines.”

Are New York Regulators Ready to Enforce?

Given the history in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, how effective would enforcement likely be in New York? For starters, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is structured to serve both the public commons and industry. Repeated instances of conflict of interest in state government surfaced in 2012.

A few examples: There are concerns about the impartiality of Lawrence Schwartz, secretary to Governor Cuomo who “has a history of investing in oil and natural gas companies,” according to an investigation by the Environmental Working Group. Also Bradley J. Field, the head of the DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources, and thus the state’s chief regulatory enforcer is a petroleum engineer, drilling proponent—and climate denier. Field asserted that, “The industry is regulated, and the lack of contamination events is evidence that the laws and rules are effectively protecting the environment.” 

 
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