03/22/2013 07:30 pm ET Updated May 22, 2013

Known Unknowns

Fracking has come to California and may be in a neighborhood near you. And if you happen to live in the Baldwin Hills or Culver City areas it may be happening as we speak. Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, and although it has existed for over a half century, new technologies have made it a viable economic option for the oil and gas industry to extract huge deposits of natural gas and oil from shale formations deep underground.

The Inglewood Oil field is the largest urban oil field in the nation, right here in Los Angeles. The opportunities to frack there are both obvious and tempting to an industry that is dependent upon exploitation of fossil fuels. The Monterey Shale, a formation that runs from Monterey Bay to Los Angeles, contains vast potential quantities of fossil fuel deposits that can be extracted using techniques that essentially use large amounts of water, vast quantities of chemicals, many of them toxic, high pressure to simulate mini-earthquakes which then loosen oil and gas deposits from the shale and to the surface.

Experiences with fracking in other parts of the country, namely Pennsylvania, Arkansas, New Mexico and Colorado have generated enormous controversy due to citizens' complaints that the byproducts of fracking, such as water and air contamination and environmental health impacts upon both animals and humans, raise serious questions as to the ability of public policies to adequately regulate these activities while protecting human life.

The documentary film Gasland, an Oscar nominated finalist, has effectively shed light and many questions regarding fracking onto the national consciousness. A sequel, Gasland 2, will be unveiled at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York next month and is expected to generate even further controversy. In New York state the Governor and the Legislature have been tied up for years on whether to allow fracking of the Marcellus Shale and just last week the state Assembly passed a resolution to extend a moratorium on the practice pending further examination of the environmental and health risks.

It is said that a wise person not only knows what he/she knows but also knows what he/she does not know. I served as a senior advisor to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for eight years while fracking literally exploded in that state. My personal interactions with many citizens and communities throughout the state led me to seriously question exactly what we do not know about fracking and given the potentially serious consequences the wise course of action would be to follow the precautionary principle and do no harm until we have a firmer grasp of well-grounded scientific study.

Primary among my concerns is what the health impacts of exposure to certain carcinogens like benzene and toluene mean for humans living near well sites. These are among the carcinogenic byproducts of fracking and there are also indications that endocrine disrupting chemicals that can cause cognitive and brain development problems are also fracking products. Do we really want to run the risk of proceeding without first addressing whether we should be involved in these activities near schools?

Increased incidences of asthma among children and cancer clusters surrounding these wells must be studied to see if there are documentable connections. I have seen first-hand water contamination in communities like Dimock, Pennsylvania; I have witnessed flaring of methane into the atmosphere, which is conspicuously apparent through satellite imagery; I have witnessed the imposition of fracking ponds, which are deep pits with thin liners storing chemically-laced water, called produced water, that returns to the surface after injection into the wells, near homes; I have seen and heard large compression stations operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week near residences; I have even witnessed a family with small children who had a wind sock installed in their back yard to signal when it was ok for their kids to play outside.

And here in California there are grave concerns over both water quantity and quality, while increasing release of greenhouse gasses like methane, which is 25-30 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere not only raises the specter of air pollution but also exacerbates global warming and climate change. The fact that conducting these activities underneath the surface but on top of existing fault lines gives rise to even further examination of whether we may be tempting fate just a little too cavalierly. Once again, there are more questions than answers at this point.

Whether we should attempt to regulate our way through this morass of unanswered questions or merely ban fracking outright is a larger policy question that must be debated thoroughly by our policy makers. But we cannot have a serious debate without evidence-based scientific evaluations. We may find that despite all of our efforts to control continued exploitation of fossil fuels that doing what we think is the right thing may be, well, wrong. After all, we are talking about an energy strategy that relies upon taking every last drop of a finite resource with deadly consequences in the form of greenhouse gasses transferred to our atmosphere while denying maximizing capital resources to the development of renewable energy sources.

If we do not ask the right questions, we will not get the right answers and a key consideration here is whether the right question is how do we wean ourselves off of foreign oil or how do we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels? One thing is certain, however, if we ask the wrong question we are bound to come up with the wrong answer.

California has a long tradition of environmental stewardship and leadership, and its commitment to sustainable development stands as a model that not only other states but the Federal government strives to emulate. What we do not know about fracking deserves maximizing scientific scrutiny. If we sacrifice our water, air, and health quality we impose a life sentence upon future generations. This is truly a tragedy of the common good.

We should demand that our elected leaders exercise statesmanship, that rare combination of vision and wisdom that determines good public policy. The elected leadership in Sacramento owes it to their constituents to know what we currently do not know. Until then, there should be a statewide moratorium on fracking.