Fracking & The Media – More Transparency Needed!

frack feudLast week we covered a panel discussion about hydraulic fracturing, also known as ‘fracking’. Now that I’m aware of the issue, it seems to be popping up more frequently. However, the question still remains: how does fracking affect farmers? How does it affect the food on my plate?

This week, NPR’s show On the Media helped explain why answers seem so elusive.  In the piece Fracking Feud, host Brooke Gladstone interviewed Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, who has been reporting about fracking since it first started getting media attention in 2008.

Fracking in the news is simply confusing.  In the past week alone, the Illinois governor passed what is considered one of the most stringent policies against fracking, while the EPA abandons its Wyoming research of fracking and groundwater, and – with a commissioned study by Congress in 2010 to test the impact of fracking on air and groundwater – they’ve decided to delay research until 2016.

Meanwhile, both environmentalists and oil and gas companies vie for more media coverage. The natural gas industry has developed many seemingly-positive PR campaigns, through extensive sponsorship of NPR, full-page ads in newspapers, and establishing NGOs and lobbying groups like America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Energy and Depth, the Clean Skies Foundation. All campaigns drive the message that “there isn’t hardcore scientific proof that processes associated with drilling are environmentally harmful.”

Then there is the issue of “Frackademia”, where respected academics release “prominent scientific research”, when they are compensated to defend the safety of fracking. Two recent cases involve a University of Texas study by the former Director of the Geological Survey, who was given a board seat and paid by a natural gas company; and a MIT report funded by BP hailing the benefits of natural gas and its extraction.

Gladstone asked Lustgarten: What do reporters typically get wrong?

His answer:

  • Using the term “fracking” to define the whole drilling process, when fracking itself lasts just minutes.  The risk exists in all steps before and after the actual “frack job”: drilling of the well, preparing and constructing the well, and disposal of waste.
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  • False distinctions and confusing terminology.  Oil and gas companies use terms like “shale fracking” and “horizontal drilling” to try to differentiate one region’s fracking process from another’s when, in reality, the process is essentially the same, and risks in one region exist in the other.  Lustgarten says it’s the reporters’ responsibility to “get beyond these [false] distinctions.”
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  • With so little scientific research about fracking, drilling companies use “the tiniest slivers of scientific uncertainty” to mean it’s vastly inconclusive whether fracking is safe or not.  However, if you look at the scientific evidence there IS, there “is a logical question of risk”.
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    This coupled with the fact that it’s difficult for scientists to test the chemical impact at fracking sites due to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (coined by critics as “the Halliburton loophole”), which states drilling companies don’t have to disclose what they inject into the ground, protected by “trade secrets”.  Researchers and water quality experts say they can’t test for contamination if they don’t know what they’re testing for.

Are we sensing a runaround for answers? If no one can research the process, and if drilling companies aren’t disclosing the chemicals so scientists can test their environmental impact, how do we know the effect of the chemicals until someone is affected by the water and food contaminated by the chemicals?

When asked if he could live with fracking, Lustgarten replied, “I take a kind of pragmatic view. I don’t think that we’re not going to pursue these resources. I think that it’s going to happen. And so, the question is how can you do it most efficiently and most safely and make the wisest decisions about the places where drilling is pursued and perhaps the places where it’s forbidden.”

As food producers, our hands may be tied, but it is clear that we have to apply more vigilance about how we trust information we are fed. In order to produce healthy food, we need real answers resulting from real research and transparency.

If the gas and oil industry and government are protecting a profitable future of energy independent of overseas sources, we farmers and foodies need to protect the interest of our health and agriculture businesses as well.

Listen to the entire 8-minute interview.

Written by: Shanti Christensen & Melanie Cheng.

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