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The fracking debate goes on

It’s been more than a decade since the landsmen started knocking on the doors of property owners in the region and offering promises of riches in exchange for the right to drill for gas on those properties.

Back then, few people had heard of the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) but it quickly became the issue of debate as scientists, business people and property owners argued about whether it was safe, benign or possible deadly.

The debate still rages. The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is in the midst of a series of public hearings about new regulations for fracking in the Delaware River. At one of two hearings in Waymart on January 16, people weighed in on the proposed fracking ban contained in the regulations. Thirty people spoke in opposition to the ban and 59 people spoke in favor of it.

In the decade or so since the debate began, fracking has become a reality in much of Pennsylvania, the country and the world, and the same dangers that come with fracking gas wells also comes with fracking oil wells. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fracking now accounts for more than 50% of all U.S. oil production in the United States, up from about 2% in 2000, and about two thirds of all natural gas. There are hundreds of thousands of fracked gas and oil wells in the country, which has led to a sharp reduction in the global price of oil and gasoline and also helped to keep the price of natural gas down.

The industry has blossomed despite the fact that for decades there has been an ever-growing body of evidence showing that the burning of fossil fuels is harmful to the environment and to human health—and fracking as an extraction method comes with its own set of problems.

Environmentalists bemoan the fact that the proposed new DRBC regulations would still allow for water withdrawals for the fracking industry, and the injection of frack waste-water into lands in the basin. Drilling supporters argue that fracking has brought prosperity to the places where it is allowed, and it’s unfair to property owners in the Delaware River Watershed to deny them the right to benefit from fracking.

But the public is increasingly questioning whether the world really needs fossil fuels to prosper. There are studies saying that, when the real costs of fossil fuels are tallied— especially with renewable forms of energy becoming competitive with fossil fuels in terms of cost—the answer is no.

Amir Jina of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago wrote last year in Forbes (tinyurl.com/y8nk7ou7), “The U.S. emitted 5.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2015, with a cost per ton of $36 (the current Social Cost of Carbon). That means the U.S. is paying $200 billion to cover the costs of all the emissions being burned. In effect, it’s a $200 billion hidden subsidy to the fossil fuel industry. This $200 billion is a cost in real money—in lost labor productivity, healthcare costs, increased energy expenditures, coastal damages—that is paid somewhere in the world for each ton of carbon dioxide that is emitted.

“The Trump administration has argued that fossil fuels are not on an equal playing field due to ‘job-destroying regulations.’ They’re right about one thing—the playing field is not equal. Numbers on the exact direct fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. vary, but it’s probably on the order of $20 billion being handed out to the fossil fuel industry each year. That’s on top of the $200 billion hidden subsidy they’re already getting for polluting our air and contributing to climate change.” Jina wrote that the U.S. spends only $15.4 billion subsidizing clean energy.

There is no question that if the United States suddenly began doing away with subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, those businesses would suffer financially, but the elected leaders and the agencies that make the rules should be more interested in protecting the health and safety of the residents, than the bottom line of any given industry.

And even as the federal government and current administration move against the tide of history, the states continue to move in the direction of the future.

New York State banned fracking by executive order in 2012, after a five-year battle during which committed activists across the state eventually convinced the leaders at the top of state government that fracking is dangerous. Vermont followed later that year with another statewide ban. In March of 2017, Maryland became the first state with proven shale gas reserves to ban the process.

In the meantime, literally hundreds of municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the process, and dozens of countries around the world have also enacted bans.

It is fitting that the DRBC would adopt regulations that ban fracking in a watershed that provides drinking water to over 15 million people. It is peculiar that the same regulations that recognize the dangers of fracking and its byproducts would also allow the injection of fracking wastewater into watershed lands. It also seems odd that the proposed rules would allow water to be permanently piped out of the Delaware River Basin to be used for fracking elsewhere.

You can make comments on the rulemaking at dockets.drbc.commentinput.com/?id=PGChb through March 30.

 

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