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Environmental connections to public health >>

Stewart to Pickens: "Is it horribly unsafe, is that what this fracking is?"

Friday, February 11, 2011

By Emily Ion, Dusty Horwitt, and Elaine Shannon

On a recent episode of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show,"  Texas oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens proudly declared, "I have fracked 3,000 wells in my life.  I have never seen anything damaged."  

Pickens, 82, was vigorously defending hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking"), the high-pressure underground injection of chemical-laced water that releases deeply buried reserves of natural gas across the country. Stewart responded:

"I'm sure there are people who would say, 'I have, it's been on my land and I've seen the toxicity.' Is there a way to protect the health of the land and the people who are on top of these huge reserves?"

"There've been several hundred thousand wells fracked," Pickens said.  "Yes. Sure there is.  There's no question of that."

But then he changed the subject.  In other words -- Pickens ducked Stewart's question.

And no wonder.  Residents of heavily-fracked land say fracking is contaminating their drinking water.  Some say water flowing out of their kitchen taps is so polluted with natural gas that it catches fire.   For a stunning demonstration, check out the documentary Gasland, recently nominated for an Academy Award.  

In response to the growing controversy, officials of the Environmental Protection Agency have a plan for a thorough study of fracking.  They intend to test water as it goes into a gas well and as it comes out and to examine the infusion of chemicals before and after fracking.   

That's the smart approach.  Thanks in part to pressure from the oil and gas lobby, Congress has generally exempted fracking from federal environmental regulations.  Last year, we reported that many natural gas and oil drilling companies use diesel and petroleum distillates full of toxic chemicals in their fracking fluid, profiting from a convenient exemption in the 2005 energy bill and the Safe Drinking Water Act.  We found that at least some companies appeared to be injecting diesel without necessary permits - a conclusion confirmed recently by an investigation by Reps. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.   

Can injections of diesel and related toxics contaminate water supplies? Pickens says no. EPA needs to find out.

A 2004 EPA investigation of hydraulic fracturing was cut short before the agency performed any field work or water testing.  EPA declared that in coal bed methane formations, fracking posed little or no risk to drinking water.  An EPA whistleblower contended the agency had failed to conduct a scientifically rigorous study.  This time around, with companies threatening to drill in more populated areas, including underneath New York City's drinking water supply, it's vital for EPA to do a comprehensive, credible investigation independent of political considerations.

Jon Stewart spoke for a lot of us who want to know, "Is it horribly unsafe, is that what this fracking is?  Is it that we can't do it without poisoning the country?"  Perfectly safe, T.Boone Pickens said.  Trust the gas industry to do the right thing.   

We say - not so fast.  We'd like a lot more information.  How about you?

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