Alternative energy solution or health crisis?
by Adam Zoltowski
Gas. It’s something we all need. We need it to fuel our cars, to manufacture our products and to process and grow the foods we eat. Gas, in all of its forms, is a fossil fuel, and thus a limited resource. The limits of its availability and the political divides between the nations who own it and those who desire it have also made it an incredibly costly resource. So what does a nation do when gasoline becomes too expensive, limited or unsafe to covet? It begins to dig in its own backyard. The consequences of this kind of exploration is the subject of the Sundance Award-winning documentary ‘Gasland’, which explores the prevalent practice of mining for natural gas on the property of everyday Americans, and the costs that may come with it.
The documentary, written, directed and filmed by Josh Fox, was recently featured on PBS’ ‘Now’, a program that reports on corporate and government impact on society and democracy. During the feature, Fox discusses a process called ‘fracking,’ in which natural gas is extracted from the earth. During fracking, a deep well is dug into the ground and a pipe is run beneath the bedrock. The pipe fractures and cracks the earth, releasing natural gas for harvesting through the pipeline. The people who lease their land to the gas companies get paid thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars, to have their fields harvested and decorated with large oil drills. It sounds like a pretty good deal. But according to Gasland and Fox, it could have immensely negative consequences.
Fracking is something I knew about long before I knew what it was called. In the summer of 2005, I came to learn about this form of gas production when my parents were approached to lease their land to a natural gas company. Initially they were excited and signed the lease, though no gas has been extracted from their property. Soon after, oil drills and wells began popping up all over the hillsides in my small hometown of Spencer, NY. People who had been poor all their lives suddenly were inundated with an excess of money. It must have seemed like a miracle to some. But Fox claims that the process of ‘fracking’ releases natural gas into the water supply of these communities. Clips from the documentary show people running water from their kitchen sinks so contaminated that it catches fire if a match is lit near it. It also shows farm animals with their fur falling out, a result of being raised on the same kind of water. What’s even more surprising is that this is happening all over the country, not just in upstate New York. Most recently, there have been proposals for ‘fracking’ on the land that provides New York City with 90% of its water.
The PBS report also shows a clip of a community meeting in Corning, NY, which isn’t far from my hometown, of angry townspeople who are opposing the leasing of land to natural gas companies. They know the potential consequences of ‘fracking’ and do not want a quick fix and a fast buck. In my hometown and county, people have gotten together to request environmentally safe drilling. Fox claims that natural gas is no solution at all because it is a fossil fuel that affects the environment negatively; that it’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Many question, “Why focus on this when time and money could best be spent on more alternative, permanent energy solutions?” The EPA even recently announced that it is interested in studying the impacts of ‘fracking’ to see its true effects on water resources and human health.
I have not seen Gasland, as it has not opened in New York, so I cannot speak to the fully formed argument it makes or to the style in which it presents its information. Although, what I saw on PBS and have experienced in my own hometown are enough to raise doubts in my mind to the safety of ‘fracking’ as a process. Clearly, it requires a better design to ensure environmental safety.
In my research on the topic, I had a very enlightening conversation with my father who, like many landowners in upstate New York, is at the center of this issue. During our talk, I realized that this is not an issue of overall wellbeing but of conflicting states of wellbeing. My hometown of Spencer is very poor. Growing up, more than half of the students in my school were on free or reduced lunches. All that most of the residents know is living paycheck to paycheck with scant to give their children. Are they wrong to take the money and run, consequences to the earth be damned? I can’t say that they are. It’s too easy to have a blanketed statement against using fossil fuels without taking into consideration the socio-economic factors around the decisions being made.
On one hand, we have the economic wellbeing of families and their desire to live a life that is enjoyable. On the other hand, we have the wellbeing of the land. In many ways, this dynamic mirrors the issues of the United States and the developing countries of the world that want to experience the same economic progress as we have, even if it means growing dirty. Why can’t both of these states of wellbeing co-exist? What is needed is a designed solution that allows drilling that will benefit these communities financially while not endangering the natural environment. It requires examining the social context of each place that has this resource and creating custom processes, instead of the one size fits all approach that has been used the last several years.
Currently, there has been a halt put to ‘fracking’ in my county and in upstate New York, until new ways of obtaining natural gas are discovered. Lets hope that these new alternatives benefit these communities, but not at the cost of their water supplies.