The Next Drilling Disaster?
Can fracking be done safely and justly? Hinchey says yes—as long as it's properly regulated. In keeping with that stance, the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act does not call for an outright ban on hydrofracking. But the much-anticipated climate change bill, introduced on May 12 against the grim backdrop of the BP disaster, does include tough language calling on drilling companies to divulge fracking chemicals.
Fuller, of the IPAA, says disclosing chemicals would not keep people or the environment any safer. He says groundwater is protected through the construction of cement casings around wells, which close it off from the methane and the fracking fluids flowing through the well. "The assertion that you cannot protect the environment and fracture natural gas wells is totally inconsistent with the reality," he says. "The well construction process is what really protects groundwater, and it is a very effective process."
But in Dimock, proper well casings didn't stop 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid from spilling onto a local farm. And that Dimock well explosion? The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) determined that improper well casing was to blame. It's not an isolated incident: improper well casing was also at fault in a 2007 explosion in Bainbridge, Ohio, that blew a house off its foundation and left yet another neighborhood without drinking water.
For months after the Dimock drilling error rendered wells unusable, Cabot Oil and Gas denied any connection to the contamination, and in March the DEP determined that hydrofracking was not at fault. It's a technicality that drilling companies and lobbyist groups commonly use to dodge accountability, and they have a point. In many instances, it's not the physical act of fracturing that contaminates the well—all the more reason, advocates argue, to put the entire process under closer scrutiny.
If fracking is here to stay, as some argue, then more effort should be made to minimize the harm it can cause. There are ways to frack using nontoxic chemicals and even air, for example, which would pose less risk to drinking water. That's a start, but it wouldn't solve the problems of fossil fuel output, pollution or the presence of wells and compressor stations up to 100 feet from homes. Nor would it address compulsory integration and mandatory pooling, which in New York and Ohio allow companies to drill beneath an unsigned person's land if his or her neighbors have all signed leases. The Halliburton Loophole is not the only one that needs to be closed.
For Switzer, the fight to protect her community has become a full-time job. She's given that bumpy tour around Dimock to Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman, grassroots organizers and DEP officials, and she has testified in Pennsylvania Senate hearings. She's not alone in her quest. Citizen action groups have popped up all over the Marcellus region, including the Shaleshock Action Alliance and the Pennsylvania-based Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, and around the country. On May 26 As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy organization representing the Park Foundation of Ithaca, won support from a surprising 26 percent of shares at ExxonMobil's annual meeting for a proposal that would have required the company to disclose its efforts to reduce risks from natural gas drilling. "The Gulf oil spill is a powerful example of how oil and gas drilling can devastate the environment," Park Foundation executive director Jon Jensen wrote in a statement. "This is a good first step in responsibly seeking energy in a way that protects the environment, human health, and the welfare of the company."
Switzer says that at the very least, there should be a national moratorium on drilling while the federal investigations are being conducted. But even if regulations are ultimately implemented, she says, Dimock is already a casualty. It was the first, she says, but it may not be the last.