Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let's Wait Until Everyone Dies Before We Do Anything

Back in the 1970's, scientists discovered, to their surprise, that the use of choloflorocarbons had a deleterious effect on the ozone layer. It destroys it. They published their findings and a whole lot of people thought it might be a good idea to stop producing and using these chemicals for the perfectly sane reason that human life would be seriously threatened by the depletion of the ozone layer.

The chemical companies went in to full-bore lobbying mode, but their essential argument was this - since even the scientists admit their science isn't exact, how about we do nothing and see what happens, OK? So, no country did anything and in 1986, while doing som atmospheric mapping a satellite discovered a huge fricking hole in the ozone layer, as well as the presence of high concentrations of chloroflorocarbons. It actually didn't take very long to get up a treaty on the manufacture and use of CFCs, as they came to be called, and somehow, western civilization hasn't toppled because of their phase out. All the same, what the scientists said would happen, in roughly the way they predicted, actually happened, and industry, when given the evidence, shrugged and said, in effect, "Who knew?"

This little story is not only an analog of another, on-going story. It is a precautionary tale as well. Last June I wrote about how my hometown is ground zero for the biggest natural gas boom in the country, spanning a couple states and tens of thousands of square miles - the Marcellus Shale. Scientists have known for a very long time there might well be vast supplies of natural gas buried deep in the bowels of the shale deposits of this part of the Appalachians. Until recently, however, the problem of extracting it was technological. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, the final hurdle was leaped, and the companies hit the area like men wandering the desert hit an oasis.

There is one teensy detail. Most of what goes in to the compounds used to crack the shale and force the gas to the service is unknown (coffee grounds?) and some of it is quite toxic. Stuff like benzene and toluene. In Colorado, folks living near areas where fracking takes place have experienced their tap water catching fire (probably saves electricity having to boil water for dinner, I guess). A report in today's New York Times covers familiar territory, including the difficulty of finding out details on the exact makeup of the hydraulic fracturing materials. Since there is no law that compels the companies to reveal this information, and it is proprietary, they have every legal right to refuse to make public what goes in to the stuff they're pumping underground.

Except, of course, it doesn't stay put, and the benzene, and the xylene, and the other fun ingredients migrate and end up in the water table and eventually in the water supply. The companies have insisted this can't happen. When water has been tested, however, it is shown to have happened. When it is determined to have happened, the companies insist the levels are well within legally acceptable limits, even in their original use. Except, of course, as pointed out in the Times article, that isn't true either. For example, levels 28 times the legal limit was found in wastewater being dumped from one plant in Pennsylvania.

Just as with CFCs, at some point a whole bunch of people are going to get sick, and after all sorts of investigations and years in the courts, it will be determined that, indeed, the chemicals used in fracking are to blame. Just as the scientists said would happen. My guess is these drilling companies will react in much the same way the chemical industry did at the time the CFC treaty was being worked out - "Who knew?" Well, we all knew, of course.

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