Fracking: An Environmental Justice Issue

You hear the “slish-slosh” as millions of gallons of water, sand, and other chemicals rush beneath the surface of the Earth. You are standing by a hydraulic fracking well, one of tens of thousands distributed across the United States. You have heard several experts, agencies, and corporations describe the economic benefits that fracking can have on the country. On the other hand, you are aware of the environmental dangers and negative impacts fracking has on local residents. You think to yourself, “Is fracking really helping my community?”

Many people are unsure of whether fracking’s benefits outweigh its costs or vice-versa. In many cases, the same evidence is used to support both sides of the issue. For example, supporters of fracking will describe additives used as being similar to those found in common household products while those against fracking will describe the additives as being harmful and not fully revealed to the public. Contradictions like this arise throughout the fracking debate, making it hard for the public to evaluate what is presented to them. Even though these uncertainties exist, the apparent detrimental environmental impacts and social injustices linked to fracking make it undesirable. Instead, states considering fracking should instead invest into renewable and clean energy resources, which will ultimately pay off more in the long run.

Supporters of fracking often emphasize the job creation and economic growth that results from drilling.  Research conducted by the American Petroleum Institute (2015) shows that fracking generated 284 billion dollars towards the U.S. gross domestic product and generated 2.1 million jobs in 2012. Although this is a great deal of revenue and jobs, many of these economic benefits do not directly reach those who are most vulnerable to the social and environmental detriments of drilling. Research done in an area of Pennsylvania lying over the Marcellus have shown that the income distribution of populations near shale gas wells has not been transformed since shale gas development.[i] Similarly, a study done in Denton revealed that shale development only accounted for 0.27% of the city’s employment and that none of the operators drilling in city territory had locally based headquarters. Additionally, only one percent of the total wealth generated by fracking in Denton was given back to Denton mineral owners. On the other hand, non-local mineral owners receive 68 percent of the wealth without having to face any of the consequences of the wells.[ii] Also, many of the 2.1 million jobs generated in 2012 could have been temporary construction and building openings, not long-term employment.

Fracking can result in environmental damages ranging from contaminating water sources to minor earthquakes. Defenders of fracking emphasize that fracking fluid is 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand, and 0.5 percent chemicals found in common household materials.[iii] However, many fracking fluid additives are kept hidden and not subject to regulation as a result of what’s known as the Halliburton loophole: fracking is exempt from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act as a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The EPA does not regulate the injection of fracturing additives and fluids. These additives can be toxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic.[iv] As a result of these contaminants, residents close to drill pads have reported health issues including nosebleeds, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms. In addition to these problems, more severe illnesses like cancer and asthma are more common around fracking sites although there is no proven link.[v] Aside from the potentially dangerous additives, there have been many cases of methane leaking from pipes into groundwater supplies. Furthermore, pit leaks and well blowouts can pollute the air, bodies of water, and land surrounding fracking sites.

Fracking can be considered an environmental justice issue as many drilling sites are located in poor and rural communities. Although gas companies may not specifically target these companies because they expect limited political resistance, often times there is more room to work in rural areas and wealthier people are less inclined to lease their mineral rights. In a study on the placement of unconventional gas wells in three counties near Pittsburgh, it was found that 777 out of 779 wells were located in areas with a median home value below $200,000.[vi] Similarly,  in the Marcellus Shale Pennsylvania region, researchers from Clark University found a strong correlation between active fracking wells and poverty levels. In fact, in seven out of nine analyses, fracked tracts had a significantly higher percentage of people below the poverty line as compared to tracts that were not exposed.[vii] Chemicals in drinking water, radon, and sulfur dioxide have all been found near natural gas sites in the Marcellus Shale area.

Environmental and health consequences in exchange for increased economic activity has been a recurring theme in the fracking debate. However, the profits do not fairly benefit the communities where the fracking sites are located. As innovative renewable technologies develop, the cost of green energy will continue to go down and be able to provide more energy to our growing world, providing a superior alternative to fracking.

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[i] Clough, E., & Bell, D. (2016). “Just fracking: a distributive environmental justice analysis of unconventional gas development in Pennsylvania, USA.” Environmental Research Letters.

[ii] Fry, Matthew, Adam Briggle, and Jordan Kincaid. “Fracking and environmental injustice in a Texas city.” Ecological Economics 117 (2015): 97-107. Print.

[iii] Hydraulic Fracking Unlocking America’s Natural Gas Resources. N.p.: American Petroleum Institute, 2015. http://www.api.org. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

[iv] Howarth, Robert W., Anthony Ingraffea, and Terry Engelder. “Should Fracking Stop?” Nature 477 (2011): n. pag. Print.

[v] Fry, Matthew, and Briggle

[vi] Cusick, M. (2016, June 6). Don’t frack the rich? Comment puts focus on environmental justice. Retrieved from NPR: https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2016/06/06/dont-frack-the-rich-comment-puts-focus-on-environmental-justice/

[vii] Bienkowski, Brian. “Poor in Pennsylvania? You’re Fracked.” Environmental Health News. N.p., 16 May 2015. Web. 23 Sept. 2015. http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2015/may/pennsylvania-fracking-environmental-justice-poor-economics.

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