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The Striking Challenge of Fracking: Who Does it Benefit and Who Gets Hurt

Two experts on fracking debate the controversial topic with strong — and sometimes opposing — points of view as part of a new collaborative media project .

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Whether we like it or not, global energy demand is continuing to rise and the choice we face today is whether we service that demand with cleaner (not to be confused with clean) or dirtier fuels. Natural gas releases approximately half the CO2 per BTU of energy as coal. Extraction and distribution of natural gas certainly has safety risks for both people and climate, but so do all of the current large-scale alternatives. 

Rather than focusing our energy on condemning the cleanest of our admittedly imperfect energy options, we should embrace the replacement of dirty fuels with cleaner ones, while simultaneously creating an economic and regulatory environment that will allow yet cleaner alternatives to emerge. 

Today's cleanest energy sources, solar, wind, geothermal and others, do not yet compete at scale economically with low cost fossil fuels. And what's worse, a whole generation of new technologies have not even made it out of the lab for lack of a financially viable future. At the same time, we know that the impacts of climate change will cost the United States and the world at large untold sums. It's time that we price the externalities of dirty energy in the form of a carbon tax and level the playing field to let our markets, along with our government, usher in a new generation of clean energy. But in the meanwhile, we should embrace every improvement towards reduced emissions, no matter if it's still imperfect. 

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Diane Pitcock, West Virginia Host Farms Program 

The debate over natural gas vs. coal seems to focus on the idea that natural gas is a "cleaner" energy source, as alternative to coal burning plants.   But is that really the case?  Or is it just another dirty fossil fuel that we should be moving away from to seek "greener" alternatives such as solar and wind power? 

The industry hype promoting natural gas that we are being fed, by way of a massive public relations campaign on television, radio, and in newspapers,  does not realistically show the very real impacts of this type of energy development.  Natural gas extraction processes are  not clean at all!  And it is certainly not the same "fracking" that's been done safely for more than 60 years, as we've been told to believe. 

Shale gas drilling involves a newer "fracking" process known as "slick water, high pressure, high volume, horizontal fracking," to be more precise.  It poses far greater risk to health and environment.  Consider this, in order to do what they do, the industry had to be exempt from key provisions of seven federal environmental laws (the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (otherwise known as Superfund) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act). 

Living in Doddridge County, West Virginia at "ground zero" of the drilling, I am seeing firsthand the industrialization of our rural communities. The allegations of well water contamination, air quality and health issues, road destruction, erosion, illegal dumping, landowner rights abuses, and quality of life issues associated with extracting natural gas beneath us are staggering!  The long term environmental and health impacts have not been adequately assessed ahead of the rush to drill for shale gas. 

The environmental researchers and journalists would be well served to visit these heavily drilled areas of rural America to get "the rest of the story."   It's not a pretty picture.

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Anthony R. Ingraffea, Ph.D., P.E.. Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow at Cornell University

 
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