CNN Senior National Editor
If you’re not familiar with the term “hydraulic fracturing,” you might want to study up. “Fracking,” as it’s called in shorthand, is big news in parts of the country and it’s about to get bigger. CNN.Com has posted a piece on the subject and you can expect to see more coverage online and on television in the weeks ahead.
In short, hydraulic fracturing involves injecting fluids thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface to break up rock formations and extract supplies of natural gas. How much gas? Perhaps several decades’ worth at current production levels; impressive when you’re talking about the United States achieving a greater degree of energy independence.
What’s also breaking is the patience of a lot of people who live in areas where fracking is underway or planned. Natural gas may be clean-burning but critics say the process and politics of fracking are anything but clean.
Among other places, fracking already is news in Wyoming and Colorado and around Fort Worth, Texas. “Ground zero” for the growing current debate is found in towns such as Dimock, Pennsylvania, and throughout the Marcellus Shale, an ancient (390 million years old by one estimate) and enormous rock formation stretching across a large swath of Appalachia. The name Marcellus is taken from that of a New York town that sits above the rock below.
As evidence of growing public interest in the issue, hundreds of people turned out when the Environmental Protection Agency held public meetings this summer in Denver, Fort Worth and Pittsburgh. Thousands are expected to turn out for Sept. 13 and 15 sessions at a theater in Binghamton, New York.
When an energy company offered Josh Fox money to drill on his Pennsylvania property, Fox set out to learn more about hydraulic fracturing. The result was the less-than-flattering documentary “Gasland,” a prize-winner at the Sundance film festival recently screened on HBO. Tap water set on fire makes an eye-catching visual, along with the storage pools of toxic waste, polluted streams and vegetation and sick humans and livestock that critics include in their complaints. Critics warn of potential damage to watersheds that serve millions of people. The natural gas industry finds Fox’s documentary biased; overstating problems while understating such benefits as homegrown energy, tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic stimulus in an economy starved for expansion.
As for the politics, critics point to an exemption from federal regulation granted fracking (the so-called “Halliburton loophole”) in legislation that came out of the 2005 energy task force directed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. The industry defends fracking as a reliable and safe method for extracting difficult-to-reach natural gas supplies which is subject to regulation by the states. That is a key point in the controversy - whether fracking should be regulated at the federal level or left to the states, with some jurisdictions requiring more disclosure about the process and the chemicals it uses and others less. Back on Capitol Hill, the idea of creating federal regulations remains hotly contested.
Filed under: David Schechter
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