Foreign Policy Blogs

Hydraulic Fracturing – More Public Health Implications

I’ve said this any number of times:  Environmental protection is much more about public health than it is about the natural environment.  Every time you hear somebody tear down the EPA or some other environmental protection agency, just remember that sometimes they may be the only thing standing between you and lung disease, cancer and undrinkable water.  The original charge of these agencies – and they have done their job very effectively in most cases over the years – was to protect public health.  For a quick look at just how air quality has radically improved in the last 30 years, see this information from EPA.

The core air, water and waste management laws, regulations and regulatory infrastructure were in place from public health legislation before the advent of the major modern environmental laws of the late 1960s and 1970s that substantially expanded their reach, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, Safe Drinking Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  The reason, for instance, that EPA was told by the Supreme Court that it must examine the relationship between greenhouse gases and the public health is because the Clean Air Act mandates that examination if there is a threat of “endangerment” to the public health.

I’ve written a few times here about the critically important subject of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock to extract natural gas.  This is also known as hydrofracking or just fracking.  The subject is so thoroughly important because the natural gas resources that are being recovered may be the linchpin to our efforts, not only in the US but in Europe and China, to making a successful transition from high-carbon economies to zero carbon.  Natural gas in a power plant produces about half the carbon dioxide of coal – much less if you’ve built a modern cogenerating facility to use that gas.

The NY Times has just published a truly excellent series on hydraulic fracturing.  The reporter, Ian Urbina, has come up with some disturbing insights into how the wastewater is managed.  This wastewater is, in many cases, laced with radioactivity and toxic chemicals. It is not being adequately tested for many of these constituents.  Its temporary disposal in massive lagoons and, eventually, at sewage treatment plants, is not, in many cases, being adequately managed by federal, state and local regulatory agencies.

Can all of the relevant agencies do this work properly?  Of course.  But, as Urbina reports in perhaps the most chilling aspect of this whole story, if special interests work overtime, all the time, to neuter these agencies’ authority, then the public health will not be protected.  Pressure Limits Efforts to Police Drilling for Gas is the third article in the series.  “…interviews with E.P.A. scientists, and confidential documents … show long and deep divisions within the agency over whether and how to increase regulation of oil and gas drillers, and over the enforcement of existing laws that some agency officials say are clearly being violated.”  There’s a long trail of improper influence, very much continuing through to the present day, on what should be the wholly science-based regulatory approach of EPA and the other agencies.

We’re in a very bad place right now – I’m not going to lie to you.  Lisa Jackson is one of the greatest EPA administrators we’ve had, and she’s been backed by the political will – forgive me if I say the moral will – of the White House.  However, the situation on Capitol Hill is such that the EPA may simply be robbed of the proper resources to do its job.  Think about that the next time you turn on the tap and give yourself or your child a glass of water.



Bill Hewitt
Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change