Our opinion: Need more fracking information


During a press conference this past August, announcing the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, the president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, Bill Mohl, said the decision to stop producing power at the plant was based on the economics of the plant, and not operational performance, litigation risks or political pressure.

"Simply put, the plant costs exceed the plant's revenues and this asset is not financially viable. Despite its excellent track record, Vermont Yankee is a single, small-unit nuclear station operating in a very challenging marketing environment."

In our coverage of the closure, we stated that "most challenging for Yankee was competition from producers using natural gas to power turbines to create electricity. Due to advancements in hydraulic fracturing, extraction companies have been able to exploit reserves in the Marcellus Formation, driving down the price of natural gas."

Ah yes, hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking, is becoming more and more popular in pockets around the country, while others -- like lawmakers here in Vermont -- view the relatively new process with more skepticism.

(Of note, Vermont was actually the first state to ban fracking in 2012, when Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Act 152.)

Last month, the Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center issued it's latest report, "Fracking by the Numbers," in which it measured the damage being caused by the so-called "controversial drilling practice" across the United States.

The report's authors attempt to compile a comprehensive measurement of fracking's after-effects -- that includes toxic wastewater, water use, chemical use, air pollution, land damage and global warming emissions.

"When it comes to fracking, the numbers don't lie," said Ben Hellerstein, field associate with Environment Massachusetts. "Fracking has created billions of gallons of toxic wastewater and damaged hundreds of thousands of acres of land across the country."

According to the report, "in Pennsylvania alone, fracked wells produced 1.2 billion gallons of wastewater in 2012. Often laced with cancer-causing and even radioactive material, toxic fracking waste has contaminated drinking water sources from Pennsylvania to New Mexico."

The report also caught the attention of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, who are using it to continue conversations about Vermont Gas Systems' proposed pipeline expansion, a 43-mile, $86.6 million natural gas pipeline that would pass through Addison County if approved by the Public Service Board. Why? Well, because as a recent report by Vermont Digger points out, "the pipeline would be used to distribute natural gas to customers of Vermont Gas, which derives some of its supply from natural gas wells outside the state that use ‘fracking' techniques."

"If fracking is too dirty and dangerous for us here in Vermont, then we must admit that it is not acceptable just because it's taking place in Alberta, Pennsylvania or anyplace else," Paul Burns, executive director for VPIRG, told the online news source.

For a moment, thought, let's take a look at the other side of the issue. Take, for instance, last week's opinion piece by New York Times columnist and self-described fracking-supporter Joe Nocera, "A Fracking Rorschach Test."

Nocera writes: "Thanks to the fracking boom, America is on the verge of overtaking Russia as the world's largest producer of oil and gas ... Supporters ... tend to focus on the economic and foreign policy blessings that come with being able to supply so much more of our energy needs in-house, as it were. Critics, however, fear that fracking could have grave environmental consequences. And they worry that the abundance of natural gas will keep America hooked on fossil fuels."

The meat of his piece, however, is on a Cornell University study published in 2011, which Nocera astutely describes as "purely an estimate" due to the fact "very little hard data" existed.

But isn't that the real problem, here?

Consider this: Fracking is currently underway in 17 states, and more than 80,000 wells have been drilled since 2005. New gas deposits are being discovered in new places all the time (recently just south of us in Western Massachusetts).

Is it dangerous and damaging to the environment? Well, it certainly would seem so. But more than that, we tend to echo the sentiment of yesterday's opinion piece published by the website LiveScience: "We deserve a better fracking debate."

The truth is, the evidence, be it pro or con, is in short supply.

"Citizens are hungry for reliable information about new unconventional oil and gas development," writes Gretchen Goldman, "but they aren't receiving it. Interference in the science, weak or non-existent laws and misinformation from industry and activists have clouded the conversation."

If this truly is the future of our nation's energy industry, or at least a part of it, then more -- much more -- investigation and oversight needs to be going on. Without that, how can you expect anyone to make an informed judgment?


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