On Sunday, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will decide which documentary deserves this year’s Oscar for best documentary. Contending for the award, among hard-hitting takes on the financial crisis and the Afghanistan war, is Josh Fox’s Gasland, a story of the potentially devastating consequences of the recent explosion of natural gas drilling in the United States. As the industry has developed new drilling technologies that included advanced hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — available reserves of natural gas in the United States have skyrocketed. If this drilling, from Pennsylvania to the Rockies, were safe, then natural gas could be a “clean” alternative to carbon-intense coal, and a “safe” alternative to imported petroleum. A major expansion of natural gas infrastructure has been embraced by everyone from T. Boone Pickens and Halliburton to President Obama. However, as Gasland exposes, fracking is being done without sufficient regulation and with scary results:
The natural gas industry has launched a full-scale PR campaign against the film and efforts to regulate fracking, setting up the front group Energy in Depth to attack the film and the congressional FRAC Act.
For comprehensive reviews of the documentary, the industry responses, and the underlying facts, read these critical reports from DeSmogBlog and GreenWire, both of which find that natural gas drilling is contaminating groundwater and communities with secret chemical stews. About the only point of real contention is that the contamination often comes from shoddy wells rather than the fracking process itself.
Now, however, a special investigation by the New York Times reveals that the real fault of Gasland may be that it fails to explore enough of the threat of fracking:
With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.
While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.
The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.
The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.
But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.
In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.
“This has experts worried,” Times reporter Ian Urbina concludes with fine understatement.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, responds:
These disturbing revelations raise the prospect that natural gas production has turned our rivers and streams into this generation’s “Love Canals.” The natural gas industry has repeatedly claimed that fracking can be done safely. We now know we need a full investigation into exactly how fracking is done and what it does to our drinking water and our environment. Americans should not have to consume radioactive materials from their drinking water as a byproduct of natural gas production.
,Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-PA), the co-author of the FRAC Act, responds:
Congress must take action to untie the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing it to assert proper oversight of the full life-cycle of the hydraulic fracturing process by repealing the egregious exemptions that this industry enjoys from our nation’s most important environmental safeguards. I will be introducing legislation in the near future to do just that.
Hinchey also called on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to take immediate action.