In a recent story, New York Times reporter Ian Urbina provided extensive detail on the threat to our water supply posed by hydrofracking for natural gas. America's deposits of natural gas are massive, although difficult to extract without damaging the environment. Urbina notes that in these hard economic times, support for this type of drilling is growing. Environmentalists believe it is cleaner than oil and coal. Politicos like the jobs it creates and everyone with an acre of land in rural Pennsylvania seems to like the money they get for leasing their land. But according to Urbina:
"... the relatively new drilling method -- known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking -- carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.
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."
The piece provides extensive detail about our ignorance of the potential environmental impact of this new technology for extracting gas. Early indications are far from positive. The documentary Gasland features the memorable flaming water faucet. NY1, New York City's all news television station presented a half hour documentary on the issue in December of 2010. Last November, I linked hydrofracking to deep sea oil drilling and mountain top removal for coal as signs of our ever more desperate need to find our fossil fuel fix.
Industry assures us that the drilling processes are safe, but the toxic mix used to extract this gas should give us at least one reason to question their conclusions. The Times article focuses on the possibility of radium contamination of our drinking supply. Of most concern however, was the confession by state and federal regulators that the technology and the extent of drilling was developing far too rapidly for them to keep pace. As Urbina reports:
"Part of the problem is that industry has outpaced regulators. "We simply can't keep up," said one inspector with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection who was not authorized to speak to reporters. "There's just too much of the waste."
Perhaps this sounds a little familiar. You might remember a number of analyses of the difficulties faced by the United States Interior Department's now defunct Minerals Management Service (MMS) in keeping up with the technology of deep sea oil drilling. While it didn't help that the MMS was a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry, even independent regulators rarely have had the resources needed to keep pace with highly motivated, well heeled, resource extraction firms. It is clear that modern economies require fast moving technological innovation to maintain growth. It is equally clear that our economy will never tolerate the cautious policies used by drug regulators to test medical technologies before they are introduced into widespread use. This "precautionary principle" is seen as too cumbersome a process and one that would impair innovation and economic development. Given our government's capacity for rapid turnaround time, it's hard to argue with this conclusion.
Somewhere between the "precautionary principle" of drug testing before introduction and reckless disregard for our water supply there is a policy middle ground. It's called an intelligent balancing of risks and benefits. Such an analysis requires that we estimate both the probability and intensity of an impact. Hydrofracking provides money, employment and valuable energy. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal. The jobs and reduced carbon dioxide are benefits. The probability of risk may very well be statistically low. However, like in the BP Gulf Oil spill, the intensity of impact from a catastrophic leak could be quite high. If New York City's water supply was contaminated, assuming we could develop the technology to clean the supply after contamination, the minimum cost would be a water filtration plant that would exceed 6 billion dollars to build and billions more to run. But what if the damage was irreversible? There are alternatives to natural gas. There are no alternatives to clean, drinkable water.
In the final analysis, this policy question is all about risk. How much risk are we willing to tolerate? And what are we willing to do to reduce the probability of risk? In our private lives, each of us approaches this question in a different way. As parents, my wife and I allowed our daughters to ride alone on New York City busses when they were twelve years old. The subways came a little later. Our children's independence and mobility was the benefit we hoped to gain. Nevertheless, we worried about them each time they walked out the door. Some of our friends in the city waited longer than we did to allow their kids to ride alone. Some of our friends in the suburbs seemed to drive their kids everywhere and never let them out of their sight. When it comes to those precious to us, we are all risk averse and always carefully weigh risks against benefits.
Ecosystems and our water supplies are precious and fragile resources. Employment and economic well being are the benefits we gain when we put ecosystems at risk. These are critical goals- especially when so many people are out of work. But employment could also be gained by investing in renewable energy. The problem is that the short term profit from natural gas attracts the private market and the long term profit from renewable energy does not. Only government and public policy can provide the resources and incentives needed to shift the market away from putting essential resources like our water supply at risk.
The political environment in the United States is proving inhospitable to such policy. While decisive government action probably saved us from a second Great Depression, the TARP program that saved Wall Street and the Obama stimulus package are both discredited and discounted by critics of "big government." The anti-government politics of the Tea Party are in ascendance and government's role in our national life is again under attack. No one questions the role of the free market in creating wealth and the importance of American entrepreneurship. However in a complex, interconnected economy on an increasingly crowded planet, we need activist government too. The future will belong to those cultures and economies that develop a sophisticated and productive relationship between the public and private sectors. If we had that level of sophistication in the U.S., we would quickly conclude that destroying our water supply is the wrong way to create jobs and fuel economic growth. It's a little like sending your five year old alone on the subway. It's crazy, completely irresponsible and something we are bound to regret.