Collateral Damage

The Real Cost of Frackingby Michelle Bamberger

Beacon Press. 256p $26.95

Like most of the developed world, America has made a Faustian bargain with fossil fuels. We have traded the immediate benefit of cheap, abundant energy for environmental costs that are generally borne elsewhere by others, now or in the future. In The Real Cost of Fracking, Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald—a veterinarian and a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University, respectively—take a closer look into what some of those costs may be and who bears them.

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As the authors explain clearly in the extensive appendix, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a nonconventional means of fossil fuel extraction from shale formations. It combines horizontal drilling techniques with the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals to fracture rock formations and liberate natural gas and oil.

Though not without controversy, fracking has been hailed as a silver bullet for domestic fuel production. It reduces our dependency on foreign supplies, lowers fuel prices and makes America a major player on the world energy stage. Because the molecular structure of natural gas makes it a less carbon-intensive fuel per unit of energy than coal or oil, America’s shale gas boom has even been touted as a way to reduce global warming due to carbon pollution—although the methane leaks in the production process may cause equivalent problems in their own right.

Bamberger and Oswald make no claim to put forth an airtight scientific argument proving the destructive effects of fracking. Instead, they document in-depth personal interviews with several rural families living in close proximity to drilling sites. These heartbreaking anecdotes demonstrate strong (though not conclusive) correlations between the onset of drilling and the onset of a raft of health issues for the family members, their pets and their livestock.

Josie and Jeff Bidermann, for example, raise horses, boxers and bulldogs south of Pittsburgh. When drilling commenced on a neighbor’s property, their water well and spring dried up and their healthy, two-year-old stud boxer became ill and died shortly after drinking from a puddle of drilling wastewater spilled on the road at the end of their driveway.

The Bidermanns’ neighbors, Sarah Valdes and her children, began experiencing headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, fatigue and gastrointestinal upset after their well water quality became degraded; Mrs. Valdes’s 13-year-old son David became chronically ill and was tested as having higher arsenic levels than an industrial worker. Eventually Sarah vacated her home, which she had spent over a decade renovating and which was subsequently vandalized; she cannot sell it and struggles to pay both her mortgage and rent.

These and other stories share many similar themes. Health issues arise in people, pets and livestock shortly after shale gas drilling commences nearby. Drilling companies generally admit little or no responsibility or else pay settlements linked with gag orders. Affected homeowners can rarely prove their cases because predrilling tests were not conducted on their air and water, and most cannot afford necropsies on their affected animals. Shale gas drilling is exempt from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation, and patchwork state laws vary widely in latitude and enforcement, leaving individual citizens little protection or recourse.

Bamberger and Oswald recognize that in our energy-hungry economy, shale gas drilling is here to stay. Having uncovered such strong links between fracking and health issues, however, they conclude their argument by calling for a version of the precautionary principle: as with new drugs, a reasonable burden of proof should largely be on the drilling companies to demonstrate the safety of their methods. Drilling companies should provide upfront disclosure about the proprietary chemicals used in the drilling and fracturing process and should finance thorough pre- and postdrilling tests of air and water quality. More research must be done on the health effects of fracking chemicals—in combination and in various concentrations.

Finally, however, the authors point out that even if drilling can be conducted with a greater degree of justice and protection for those living close to drilling sites, fracking, like all fossil fuel production, is not a long-term solution for our energy needs. Ultimately, our economy will have to make a transition to renewables, both because even the newly abundant shale gas is still in finite supply and because the carbon pollution from burning all these reserves will wreak havoc on our climate.

Bamberger and Oswald readily admit that their evidence, however compelling, is limited and anecdotal. Perhaps the vast majority of those living around fracking sites experience no harm whatsoever and simply enjoy the royalties they receive. It is impossible to judge because so few come forward to share their experiences. But even if the stories the authors relate represent a minority group, those hardships still beg for redress, and they still call into question the unambiguously rosy picture of fracking painted by the extraction industry.

The Real Cost of Fracking is hardly pleasant bedside reading, but it is well written, and, most important, it spurs a necessary public conversation about our country’s newfound love affair with hydraulic fracturing. As beneficiaries of cheaper gas, all of us must ask ourselves whether the hidden costs are worth it.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Savage
2 years 10 months ago
I give Mr. Kramer credit for acknowledging that "...It is impossible to judge because so few come forward " That's not quite compatible with the previous claim of "...Having uncovered such strong links between fracking and health issues" Strong links - if any - would certainly motivate any state health department to step in. The real axe Mr. Kramer is grinding is the tired and untrue claim that "... the carbon pollution from burning all these reserves will wreak havoc on our climate." Carbon dioxide is an invisible, odorless gas, exhaled by each of us in far greater concentration than found in the atmosphere; as the primary ingredient in plant photosynthesis of carbohydrates (i.e., food) it is essential to all life on Earth. As a greenhouse gas, its heating effect follows a logarithmic curve; that's the curve that rises steeply, then levels off toward an asymptotic value. The remaining heating that can be caused by CO2 is about 1 C. There isn't any "climate crisis." There also hasn't been any global warming, as measured by NOAA weather satellites, for 18 years - and counting. I remember Mr. Kramer as being some kind of environmental consultant at St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. He had, at that time, no scientific expertise, but had been trained by some left-wing socialist outfit to present this propaganda. Apparently he has now found a paying gig to continue to do so. Richard C. Savage Ph.D., Meteorology
IGNACIO SILVA
2 years 10 months ago
Dr. Savage, please update your data bank with the following: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/outreach/faq_cat-1.html#21
Richard Savage
2 years 10 months ago
I'm not interested in the paid propaganda from Mr. Obama and his pack of liars, Mr. Silva.And that's all your reference: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/outreach/faq_cat-1.html#21 is. It comes from the same people who recently loudly announced that 2014 was the warmest year in history, by 0.01 C. The measurement error is 0.05 C. All the measured annual temps from 2001 to 2014 differ from each other by less than the measurement error. Claiming 2014 was warmer than any other is, simply, a lie. "Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus" is Cicero's comment on liars, I believe. But, far more important than a question of atmospheric science is the effect ignorant people like Mr. Kramer will have on the billion people in the Third World who have no electricity to refrigerate their food and medicine, pump clean water, cook their food, and bring them news of approaching severe weather. That's what Catholics should be concerned about. In the meantime, the pagan government of India and the Communist government of China will continue building coal-fired electricity generating plants. Poverty kills millions of innocent people every year; global warming hasn't killed anyone.
Jim Lein
2 years 9 months ago
These is more to fracking and its environmental impact than mentioned here and apparently more than mentioned in the book itself. Fracking is also done for oil, as here in North Dakota. In fact, the "cheaper gas" is so cheap that one third of it is flared away as a nuisance that gets in the way of extracting oil. Recently, though, with lower oil prices, the energy folks are being forced to rethink this wasteful policy of lighting up the night sky with huge natural gas flares rather than capturing it all and selling it. Another aspect of fracking is the sand used in the process. Much of it comes by rail cars from my home state of Wisconsin. This has resulted in some high-silica mini sandstorms if the wind is from a certain direction. Some parents are having their kids wear masks to play outdoors. And some scenic hills are now gone, like coal mining mountain removal on a smaller scale.

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