02/19/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Fracking: An Urgent Conversation

We are in the middle of a controversy, and it's about something we cannot afford to ignore -- our water supply. And what's happening to it could be deadly.

It's called fracking.

To be honest, I didn't know what fracking was until recently, and I'm guessing many of you didn't either. That's because fracking (short for "hydraulic fracturing, or the process by which natural gas is extracted from shale rock deep within the earth) is a complicated, hot-button issue that involves commerce and the environment. And whenever that happens (can you say "global warming?"), the facts are often drowned out by heated arguments and disinformation.

One of the most powerful things I've read about fracking was reported by the Associated Press just last month: that a man from Weatherford, TX, a husband and father of three whose community was affected by fracking, told the Environmental Protection Agency that his family's drinking water had begun "bubbling like champagne" and that his well contained "so much methane [gas] that the water pouring out of a garden hose could be ignited."

Then I read a quote by Robert Redford -- whose creds as an environmentalist are right up there with his film career -- who said, "Fracking for gas threatens drinking water supplies, contaminates the air and contributes to climate change. To make matters worse, the gas industry plans to ship much of our shale gas overseas, as we shoulder all the environmental and public health risk."

For every argument offered against fracking, another source is cited to contradict it. A Wall Street Journal editorial in June of 2011 argued that there have been no reported cases of water contamination by fracking; that toxic gasses are no more abundant in fracking areas than in other areas in the U.S.; and that it is up the states and local communities to decide if the air pollution from fracking is a fair trade-off for the economic benefits that may arise it.

So let's look at what we know:

About ten years ago, oil companies, notably in Texas, began combining their usual drilling process with fracking, a technique in which large amounts of sand, water and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure, in order to loosen the shale rock and release that natural gas that's trapped there. Natural gas is the combustible fossil fuel we use in countless ways -- from heating our homes to gassing up our cars.

Supporters of fracking claim that this shale gas has helped create hundreds of thousands of news jobs, and can potentially inject up to $120 billion into the American economy. But what we're rapidly learning is that the process could cost us dearly, and potentially threaten our lives. Here's why:

  • In order to reach the shale rock, drills must pass through the "aquifer," the underground layer of earth where we get our drinking water, and water for our crops. If the drills explode or leak -- and they sometimes do -- this vital source of water is contaminated by chemicals. According to a Congressional investigation in 2011, fracking products contain 29 carcinogenic chemicals that are components of more than 650 different products used in hydraulic fracturing.
  • Each gas well used in fracking requires between one and eight million gallons of fresh water. Critics say that this water is contaminated by "chemicals, remnant oil and naturally occurring radioactive materials" that sink into communities where people work and live.
  • Studies have shown that fracking can significantly increase air pollution, due to methane gas leaks as well as emissions from the diesel- and gas-powered equipment used in the process. All of this, say the experts, breaks down in the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gasses.
  • Those who oppose fracking also warn of its global consequences. As the method continues to be employed, they say, more and more natural gas will be brought to market, then piped to the coastlands and sold overseas. In effect, we would be exporting immeasurable environmental damage around the world.

So who's right?

As with any environmental issue, you need to distill all of the facts and figures -- all of the ironclad arguments -- and then ask yourself a simple question: Are we comfortably sure we're safe?

Too many experts have weighed in on the debate, determining that fracking is, at best, a cause for alarm; and at worse, a deadly hazard. That's not a risk we should be willing to take.

So if you have not been up on this issue, check out What is Fracking, Dangers of Fracking or Artists Against Fracking for more information, or do your own independent research. I hope you'll recognize the seriousness and potency of this debate and that you'll lend your thoughts to the conversation as well.