Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report linking hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to contaminated well-water in Wyoming. While copious anecdotal evidence has hinted at fracking’s dangers, the EPA’s report is among the first to conclusively document the presence of industrial pollutants in groundwater. This smoking gun proves that fracking confers risks to human health — risks that justify suspending the practice.
First, a few words on what, exactly, the EPA found. In a nutshell, fracking is the process of injecting pressurized fluid into underground shale deposits to force natural gas out of the rock and up to the surface. The composition of this fluid is a trade secret — by and large, frackers are not required to reveal the ingredients of their strange brews. Thanks to a modicum of voluntary disclosure, however, we do know that fracking fluid can contain up to 29 different carcinogens. We also know that keeping all that fluid safely sealed within the fracking well is very difficult, and that the cocktail often escapes into the surrounding rock.
That, apparently, is what happened in Pavillion, Wyoming, where EPA scientists identified numerous compounds — including benzene in concentrations 78 times higher than safe standards — associated with fracking in nearby pit wells. In response, the Agency for Toxic Substances has recommended that citizens of Pavillion switch to alternate water sources and ventilate their bathrooms to prevent their homes from blowing up. No word yet on whether Pavillionites find this advice reassuring.
Citizens who have followed the fracking debate were likely not surprised by the EPA’s findings. Since fracking took off in the early 2000s, it has been implicated in an array of ominous maladies; flammable faucets; and, most recently, earthquakes in Ohio. Yet even as the anecdotal evidence has mounted, fracking has continued apace. The practice has accelerated in states with huge shale deposits such as Pennsylvania, and New York lifted its moratorium this summer. While the EPA’s report may lead some states to rethink their position on fracking, I suspect that hydraulic fracturing will continue unimpeded. Accounts of malodorous water, unexplained headaches and nosebleeds, and the death of livestock have not slowed the drilling of wells; I doubt that finding benzene in groundwater will.
The EPA’s discovery may have vindicated the long-standing suspicions of environmentalists, but nobody’s rejoicing. Fracking improves companies' ability to access natural gas reserves, and natural gas provides plenty of benefits: It produces fewer carbon emissions than other fossil fuels; it is cheap, plentiful, and not imported from a Middle Eastern dictatorship; and it provides income to poor farming communities. For these reasons, numerous pragmatic environmentalists have embraced natural gas as a transitional fuel that can supplant coal and oil until wind and solar are ready for prime time. If fracking were demonstrably safe, environmentalists would have reason to accept it.
But environmental groups tend to adhere to the precautionary principle: The notion that the burden of proof falls on industry to demonstrate that its practices are not harmful. Shoot later; ask questions first. Environmentalists have long avowed that, in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence either way, we should have refrained from fracking — especially given the abundant anecdotal evidence that suggests it is harmful — and conducted more rigorous tests. Then we should have tested fracking again, and a third time, and however many subsequent trials it took to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that the practice was safe. (This espousal of the precautionary principle stands in opposition to the Obama administration, which avers that fracking can go ahead while the EPA conducts its review.)
For their caution, green groups are tarred as anti-progress obstructionists who won’t be happy until every person in America exchanges their car for a horse. But most mainstream environmental non-profits aren’t fundamentally against the exploitation of natural gas — they only oppose industrial practices, like fracking, whose actual or potential costs outweigh their benefits. The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, acknowledges that natural gas will inevitably be part of the U.S.'s energy portfolio, but also believes that fracking, as presently practiced, is too shadowy and dangerous to continue unreformed.
But can fracking be cleaned up, or does it inherently pose "fat-tailed risk" — i.e., seemingly improbable consequences that are more likely than we realize, and so terrible that they aren't worth risking? That's a question currently beyond the purview of this article or any other, since we don't fully understand the connections between fracking and groundwater contamination, methane seepage, and those pesky earthquakes. With extensive modifications to the process, it may be possible to frack reasonably safely; or fracking may be intrinsically dangerous and impermissable. We don't know. But we do know that, in the face of uncertainty, caution pays off.
Time and again throughout modern history, fat-tailed environmental risks have been manifested, with disastrous outcomes. Spraying mosquitoes with DDT seemed like a great idea, until we wiped out most of North America's birds. We went ahead and mined every seam of coal we could find in Appalachia, and discovered only after the fact that we'd caused thousands of deaths through respiratory problems and mercury poisoning. Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon luridly demonstrated the perils of taking on outsized risk. And, of course, climate change is fat-tailed risk writ large: Burning fossil fuels has been fun, but now we're confronting the possibility that global temperatures might rise 6 degrees this century and leave large parts of the Earth uninhabitable.
Right now, we have compelling reasons to believe that fracking contaminates water and presents a danger to human health (and let's not even mention the earthquakes). Those risks are too great to let fracking continue unabated: The precautionary principle commands us to shut the practice down pending further review. Someday, a radically different form of hydraulic fracturing may meet environmental and risk-aversion standards; today, fracking is too dangerous to permit.
Photo Credit: Marcellus Protest