Scientists and actors don't team up often, but as two New Yorkers deeply concerned about the dangers of shale gas extraction for our own state, we've been watching with growing alarm an unfolding drama one time zone away in Illinois where shale gas and oil fracking is under consideration by state lawmakers.
Scientific evidence for the dangers of drilling and fracking apply equally to both states, and both states claim to have drafted the "strongest regulations" on fracking in the nation. And yet the political scripts couldn't be more different: As troubling data on health and safety continues to emerge, New York let its draft regulations expire, whereas, in Illinois, where proposed regulations are actually weaker, a headlong rush to permit drilling and fracking is underway.
Our message to Illinois is this: look before you leap. In the nearly five years that we've been deliberating about shale gas fracking in New York, we've learned a few things that might interest you.
Here's one that might surprise you: fracking itself is not the biggest problem. It's everything else that comes along with fracking that's truly troublesome.
The trouble starts with wellpad construction. Each wellpad -- and shale gas and oil extraction requires thousands -- chews up five to nine acres of land. The wellpad's attendant technologies -- pipelines, processing units, and compressor stations -- chew up even more. This clear-cutting of forests and destruction of farmland sends topsoil into rivers and streams. Meanwhile, the relentless noise, light and dust pollution during the many months of 24/7 drilling and fracking destroys quality of life in small towns.
What fracturing methane and oil out of shale bedrock does to the surface landscape is devastation, pure and simple. For adjacent homeowners, that means loss of agriculture, recreation, tourism, peace of mind and property values. A cherished way of life is destroyed and no regulations can bring it back.
Furthermore, the transport of heavy equipment, water, chemicals and sand to the fracking sites requires at least 6,000 truck trips per well, destroys roads, increases deadly air pollution, and boosts both vehicular accident rates and the risk of dangerous chemical spills. The result is increased costs to local communities for emergency services, law enforcement and road repair.
After the fracking is done and the gas and oil are flowing, the problems don't stop. Like people, well cement and casings can grow frail with age and fail. And when they do, they leak. Operator-wide statistics in Pennsylvania show that about six to nine percent of new wells drilled in each of the past three years have compromised structural integrity. Over time, as the cement ages, cracks and shrinks, these failures can reach up to 50 percent over 30 years.
Cement -- no surprise -- is not a perfect material. Especially when subjected to repeated vibrations -- as during adjacent drilling, fracking and refracking -- it cannot be counted on to serve as a failsafe gasket. And when cement gives out, pathways open for the upward migration of unwanted substances. These can include methane, benzene, and radon -- all of which can be released into drinking water aquifers and the atmosphere.
Such engineering failures carry public health implications. Our friends in the medical community are just beginning comprehensive studies to figure out exactly why so many people who live near drilling and fracking operations in other states report unusual maladies -- like burning rashes and nosebleeds. New York is waiting to hear more about these studies. Why should Illinois forge ahead without them?
Is Illinois more desperate than New York for the temporary, pollution-dependent jobs and revenues that fracking will bring? If so, then what hope do Illinoisans have that the state agencies have the proper funding to enforce the regulations with boots on the ground and stand up to the industry in the event that it violates the rules?
And then there's the ultimate irony: after being asked to risk so much -- water, soil, forests, air quality and public health itself -- Illinois would gain so little. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Illinois Basin, which covers most of Illinois and parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, contains an estimated 211 million barrels of oil, 4.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than a billion barrels of other petroleum products like butane.
Does that sound like a lot? It's not, even if every last drop of oil and cubic foot of gas could be extracted. That 211 million barrels of oil is about ten days of supply for the entire U.S. That 4.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is less than two months supply for the entire U.S.
Does Illinois really want to turn itself inside out, massively industrialize prime farmland, and gamble with drinking water for a paltry couple months worth of oil and gas? Does Illinois really want to shatter its bedrock in order to extract the last dregs of these fossil fuels?
Here's what we think: wherever shale gas and oil development is not underway -- as in New York and Illinois -- it should be under a moratorium. That moratorium should last until a scientific consensus is reached on the human health, environmental and economic costs of such development.
If such consensus finds those costs to be unsupportable, then those moratoria should become bans. Destroying the land to provide a few years of toxic, temporary jobs and further entrench our nation's dependency on fossil fuel is not a good bargain for New York or for Illinois -- or for any other state proposed for wringing out the last puddles and whiffs of gas and oil.
Tony Ingraffea is the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow at Cornell University and president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, Inc.
Mark Ruffalo is an actor and director who resides with his family in Callicoon, New York.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more