Professor commentary: What’s the flurry about fracking?

Ohio University has one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation. Prospective students and their parents are quickly smitten with the bricks, trees and overall beauty of this place, and so is everybody who visits Athens for the first time. Just as with the air we breathe and the water we drink, we’ve come to take this beauty for granted. It’s part of the deal — maybe the price we pay for living in a remote and somewhat underserved area.

However, the beauty of the place and also the good air and the clean drinking water could be seriously affected by the advent of an industry commonly known as fracking.

Fracking, in short, means horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and gas trapped in deep shale layers. This is not your grandparents’ little rocking horse oil well; it is a large-scale industry, a noisy, smelly, and dangerous workplace with a 24/7 frenzy of activity — and it is also toxic. Over 600 chemicals are used in drilling muds and fracking fluids, many of which are known to cause severe health problems, including cancer and chronic diseases. The most dangerous among them are benzenes and other volatile organic compounds.

Proponents of fracking will tell you that this is merely a question of dilution: The chemicals make up only 1.5 to 4 percent of the fracking fluid, so they won’t hurt you. That sounds convincing until you realize that we’re talking about insanely large quantities. Depending on the site, a single fracking event requires somewhere between two and eight million gallons of water. For an average five million gallon frack job, we’d look at 100,000 gallons of chemicals. That’s about 14 tank trucks full of toxic chemicals that need to be trucked to the fracking site, in addition to over 700 tank trucks of water. Residents in areas with fracking sites, such as Wetzel County, WV, learned the hard way that this not only takes a toll on roads and bridges, it also creates frequent traffic congestion and a heightened risk of accidents and spills.

In addition to the transportation of water, chemicals, drilling muds, silica sands, and toxic wastewater, this industry also includes large, failure-prone technical apparatuses, such as the well pad and the drilling rig; the bore hole and well casing; freshwater and wastewater impoundments; and compressors, tanks, and pipelines for the extracted gas and oil. Joe Adams, OU’s associate vice president of risk management and safety, said during a March 27, 2012, public forum on fracking, “Typically, oil rigs are very dangerous locations.” Rig fires, tank explosions, and all sort of leaks and spills are indeed not unusual, although they are rarely as dramatic as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig blaze in the Gulf of Mexico.

Based on previous experiences with leaks, spills, and accidents in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas, it is safe to say that the most common dangers of fracking are water and air contamination. If OU were to allow drilling under the Ridges or a fracking company were to drill near University Estates (both options have been publicly discussed recently), our main drinking water source from the aquifers below the Hocking River would be in the immediate vicinity of the fracking wells. According to Anthony Ingraffea, a rock fracturing expert from Cornell University, cracked well casings are the most common culprit in aquifer contamination—and once the groundwater is polluted, it can’t be cleaned up.

Given our typical weather patterns, the OU campus would be downwind of these fracking sites. We would get an unhealthy mix of fugitive natural gas, volatile organic compounds, and diesel fumes, forming a dangerous ground-level ozone cloud. Researchers in Colorado found that these airborne toxic chemicals are emitted during all stages of the fracking process even under failure-free operation.

Trucks would constantly drive back and forth, plugging up the freeway and State Route 682. In addition, the drilling and fracking operations would create a fair amount of noise and light pollution. “You can’t sugar-coat it …you’re going to see about an 80-foot derrick, it’s lit up like a Christmas tree, it operates 24 hours a day, and there’s noise,“ said Ohio Oil Council director Terry Flemming during a “Newswatch” discussion at the local WOUB station on Feb. 28, 2012.

The fracking frenzy, often touted as an economic blessing, leaves us wondering how attractive Ohio University would be for students, faculty, and staff if we’d have to live with these unintended consequences. It is difficult to put a price tag on the environment, on the destruction of natural beauty, on reduced quality of life, on community disruption, and on lost opportunities. But these issues would likely translate into increased health care expenses, lower enrollment due to reduced attractiveness, fewer long-term jobs at Ohio University, and other damage to the local economy. It thus seems obvious that the short-term benefits of fracking would be easily outweighed by the long-term costs it creates.

Bernhard Debatin is a professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and Director of Studies of the HTC journalism program. He is also a member of the concerned citizens group “Slow Down Fracking in Athens County” (SD-FRAC) and frequent contributor to the group’s website (http://slowdownfracking.wordpress.com/).

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