September 3rd, 2010
09:12 AM ET

Frack you, frack me

Dave Schechter
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
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Diane Sipe

    Thank you for covering this issue. We in Western Pennsylvania are under siege by the gas drillers and we need the nation to understand that 20 years of natural gas extraction is not worth permanent damage to the environment and the ruin of our lives. We need long term solutions to our energy problem, not kicking it down the road for 20 years.

    September 4, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  2. VIdura Barrios

    CNN finally covered this story. I know myself and so many people have been emailing you about this.

    Please cover this story in your main TV programming! This is such a timely and important issue.

    I live in New York where recently a small battle has been won with this issue, where the Senate finally voted on a moratorium on drilling until the EPA deems the procedure safe.

    We got to start thinking of future generations and stop being blinded by short term profit.

    September 4, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  3. Virginia LoJacono

    I live in Rock Cave, West Virginia, a rural mountainous county in the cross-hairs of marcellus gas exploration and drilling. Within a 10 mile area there are more than 5 wells in various stages of drilling. It's an unregulated heyday for the gas companies with no WV monitoring and no federal safety net. Within 30 miles of my home we just had our first reported light your water on fire, which our DEP has ignored. We need some national media attention and investigative reporting in our forgotten state to shed some light on what the gas companies are getting away with under cover of darkness.

    September 4, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  4. John Moyer

    We should totally trust the oil & gas industry to protect the environment! 😉

    September 4, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  5. Jen

    The loophole is not being closed and in fact politicians he interviews in the film still have not worked to change that!

    September 4, 2010 at 7:47 am |
  6. Peter Hodson

    Why hasn't the current administration closed a loophole preventing the EPA from doing its job?

    Why is Cheney not being held accountable for misusing his power to represent only the interests of large energy companies and not that of the people?

    Greed and Corruption folks... Money gets bad things done.

    Oh sure, we could go the renewable energy route but that means cheap power that oil and gas companies can't make billions in profits from an ever diminising resource.

    We better get ready to battle at grass roots level. Our leaders are not watching the store anymore.

    September 4, 2010 at 6:43 am |
  7. Steve white

    There has been 3,345 permits issued this year alone in Pennsylvania for gas well drilling sites. Trying to get regulations in place before they drill
    Will be impossible. We need a moratorium to allow regulation and scientific data to catch up with the industry. How will our water treatment plants handle the excessive flow of these chemicals? And what about the hundreds of spills that are reported, are the fines just a cost of business for them ( I guess I already know the answer to that )
    Mother nature has quite an amazing ability to clean up after our mistakes, but to make them with such high volumes of water and fast pace industry keeps me up at night.......

    September 3, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  8. Michael Grande

    It is ridiculous that the EPA is unable to regulate this process due to a loophole buried in Federal legislation passed 5 years ago.

    As a resident of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), I have seen little evidence of the industry's claims of new jobs (many many workers have been flown in from other states), while I have seen plenty of evidence of the dangers to humans and the environment. Two gas well explosions in just the past two months within an hour of Pittsburgh, and the industry is still just ramping up extraction in our part of the country. Where will it go from here?

    I realize energy independence and jobs are important to the country's future, but at what cost? Regulation-real regulation–of this industry will only lead to the "building of a better mouse trap". We know the gas is there-there has to be a better way to extract it, period.

    I would love to see Josh Fox's documentary followed up by the mainstream media, who should be embarrassed that it took an independent citizen to call these methods into question. Please give the industry (who ducked him consistently throughout his filming) the chance to explain themselves. "Fourth Estate" where are you???

    September 3, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  9. Gail Dumcan

    At what cost? Come on,let's just go to oil addiction rehab and change our way of living.Yes, change is hard at the beginning but it can be done.Education is a key point here.We must stop hangin on to the old way of living and embrace what needs to be done to save our planet and ourselves.It is so simple.Wake up call for us all.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  10. Mary

    That would be 1200 at the Pittsburgh EPA meeting.....thank you so much for covering this story...I think it is one of the most important stories that can be told to stop the ongoing assault on our environment. and humanity....I find it very interesting that T Boone Pickens who promotes natural gas has a lot invested in water purification.....from the documentary ...."Flow".....for the love of water.....Thank you again...Mary

    September 3, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  11. Gloria Forouzan

    I became of "fracking" in late June 2010. Over the past 2 months public awareness has greatly increased across the state of PA. Currently most of my time is spent in helping to raise citizens' awareness, especially in my Pittsburgh neighborhood, Lawrenceville, where 60+ drilling leases have already been signed. Lawrenceville sits on the banks of the Allegheny River, which flows through several states, til it hits Illinois, there it joins the Mississippi. The water sources in the eastern & central part of the state serve millions more (including New York City). So if people want to label me a NIMBY (not in my backyard type), at least I can say I'm working on behalf of a mighty big backyard.

    Pittsburghers have spent decades recovering from the environmental damage caused by industry. Now we're finding out that most of the legislative/regulatory power lies with the state, not with the town/city.

    We will keep fighting this and I thank CNN for coverage. All of PA's state representatives are up for election Nov. 2, 2010. Marcellus money has been buying complicity in Harrisburg, will the $$ be enough for the incumbents to hold on to their seats?

    September 3, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  12. Jenna Ali

    You know, a lot of completely dangerous and/or unconscionable things could create an economic boom in this country, but that doesn't mean we should do them. I'm sick of corporations taking advantage of the economic struggles of Americans to do whatever they want, all for the sake of "creating jobs" and "the economy." Yes, we need jobs, and yes, we need the economy to turn around, but not at the expense of long term quality of life. I'm not willing to get cancer tomorrow for an iPod today.

    September 3, 2010 at 12:17 pm |