JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
You’ve probably heard of fracking. It’s a controversial natural gas drilling technique that pumps millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals deep underground to release oil and gas trapped in shale formations. Advocates say it’s a safe way to harness a bridge fuel that causes fewer CO2 emissions than coal. But critics warn it’s dangerous to the environment and public health. More than 30 states allow fracking, and Maryland recently approved the practice.
Well, now joining to debate whether the benefits of fracking outweigh the risks in Maryland are two guests.
We joined by Katie Brown. She is a spokesperson for Energy In Depth, a research education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
We’re also joined by Emily Wurth. She’s the water program director for Food & Water Watch.
Thank you both for joining us.
EMILY WURTH, WATER PROGRAM DIR., FOOD & WATER WATCH: Thanks so much for having us.
NOOR: So let’s get right into it. Let’s start with you, Katie. So, soon after previous Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signaled fracking would be allowed in Western Maryland, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to ban the practice in the entire state. This was after six years of debate across New York. Cuomo had previously embraced fracking as a way to provide jobs, economic stimulus, and a way to transition off coal. Why do you think that the benefits for Maryland outweigh the risks?
KATIE BROWN, SPOKESPERSON, ENERGY IN DEPTH, IPAA: Well, I think the most important question in that respect is not whether there are risks, but can you manage those risks. And the overwhelming answer is yes. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can take the word of Gina McCarthy. She is the administrator of the EPA, and she said there is nothing inherently dangerous about hydraulic fracturing that can’t be fixed with sound engineering practices. And that’s something that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has also said. He said that the risks of fracking are absolutely manageable. And that’s also actually something that Maryland regulators found. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources produced a report late last year. It examined all the risks of fracking, and it determined that each one of those risks can be managed with sound practices and sound regulations, which Maryland has in place. And so that’s the important question.
As far as the benefits, the benefits are absolutely enormous. I mean, on a larger scale we’re seeing manufacturing coming back to the United States. We’re seeing millions of jobs. We’re seeing gas prices at $2 a gallon. And that’s because of fracking. And, frankly, there are huge environment the benefits as well. I mean, New York has the cleanest air in decades, and that’s because they are ramping up their use of natural gas. Pennsylvania is the same thing. They’ve had millions of tons of pollution removed from the air because of natural gas and the increased use of natural gas which comes from hydraulic fracturing, and, obviously, the benefits in terms of the climate as well.
NOOR: So I wanted to give you a chance to respond, Emily. So what your response? ‘Cause you’re–so Food & Water Watch as part of a coalition of dozens of groups in Maryland that’s calling for a moratorium.
WURTH: Yes. Absolutely. So just to point out that Governor Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking in New York was based on the advice of his health commissioner, Dr. Zucker. He did an extensive health review and reviewed all of the current literature. There are now more than 400 studies on the impact of shale gas development in the literature. And a recent analysis done in 2014 by physicians, scientists, and engineers find that of the studies on air pollution, for instance, 95 percent of those show potential risk or harm. When they looked at the studies on health, which–there are about 47 studies done on health–96 percent of those showed potential risks or harm. So Dr. Zucker actually reviewed the current literature. Seventy-three percent of those 400 studies have come out since January 2013. And his recommendation was: would I want my family to live in a community with fracking? And he told Governor Cuomo that the answer is no.
And so, many of us in Maryland now say if fracking is not safe for a child in New York, then we don’t think it’s safe for child in Maryland. And that’s why we’ve come together to organize for the legislature to pass a long-term moratorium. This moratorium would give time for the full long-term and cumulative health effects of drilling and fracking to come out. We still don’t understand. What we know right now is that the literature is showing air pollution, water contamination, and public health risks. And what we don’t understand are what the long-term cumulative health effects are on fracking. And so we’re saying: why would we subject Marylanders to an uncontrolled public health experiment without understanding what the long-term risks are?
So Governor Cuomo and the state of New York is fully informed on the literature. I’d like to point out that Governor O’Malley’s regulations, the best management practices report that his regulations were based on was actually completed in 2013 in the early part of that year. So it does not reflect all of the new peer-reviewed studies that have come out. In 2014 alone there were 154 peer-reviewed studies that came out on the impacts of shale gas development, many of which found serious concerns. So that’s about three studies a week. I mean, those of us who work on this issue thought to ourselves, wow, it seems like there’s a new study on the problems of fracking every other day. And in fact that was the case. And, unfortunately–.
NOOR: So I want to get Katie’s response to that point.
So if you do a Google search on fracking, just like Emily said, you see numerous reports coming out in the past few years warning of public health risks and environmental risks. Do you agree, is what Governor Cuomo said–he cited lack of enough scientific data to say this is safe. Do you agree with that?
BROWN: Well, I think you also have to look at the broader picture and look at what other states have determined as well. I mean, if you look at what’s happening in California, for instance, they’ve looked at the science, and they have determined that the risks of fracking are manageable. That’s coming from Governor Brown. He is a staunch environmentalist. He believes climate change is a top priority. And he is the one that said that anti-fracking activists don’t know what they’re talking about. When you look at Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper is a strong supporter of development of natural gas because of the environmental and economic benefits. Look at Illinois. They rejected ban-fracking activism because of the environmental and economic benefits.
And one thing to point out about that study in New York: when Commissioner Zucker held up that report and said this is peer-reviewed research, this is bona fide peer-reviewed research, that study that he was holding up was a study by a group called Global Community Monitor and a group also called the Center for Environmental health. These are both aggressive anti-fracking groups. And that specific report was also peer-reviewed by the cofounder of New Yorkers Against Fracking.
And I also read the report, and a lot of these studies are linked to anti-fracking activists as well, and these are–each time it was mentioned, each time one of these studies was mentioned, the researchers say, actually this study doesn’t have any scientific link to show that there are health problems associated with fracking.
Meanwhile, this is something that regulars have been concerned about. So that is why regulators in Colorado and in Texas and in Pennsylvania have installed air monitors around well sites. And they found that there are no measurements that are above thresholds that are hurting public health in any way.
NOOR: So let me get Emily’s response to that. Do you agree with the statement of Katie Brown’s, saying that overall–’cause New York may have banned fracking, but there are dozens of states where it is being used right now.
WURTH: Sure. It’s going on in a lot of states across the country.
But what we’re finding–I mean, the air monitoring is just not the case. We’re finding high levels of benzene and formaldehyde–known carcinogens–coming up on air monitors. Benzene was found in the urine of well pad workers. So people who are working in oil and gas industry actually have levels of benzene in their urine that are concerning enough to be associated with leukemia.
And so I think there’s been a lot of effort to influence elected officials through campaign contributions by the oil and gas industry, and we’ve seen that play out even among, like Katie said, Democratic officials who are representing the interests of the oil and gas industry over their concerns of people across the country.
And what we’re seeing is that there is more and more evidence each day. I mean, there are more than 400 studies. That doesn’t even include all of the newspaper investigative reports and other news coming out about the serious concerns. I mean, we’re seeing swarms of earthquake. I just heard today that the earthquake insurance companies are now actually determining how much people are going to have to pay in earthquake insurance by their proximity to fracking wells. This stuff is happening across the country.
And although there’s a lot of effort for the oil and gas industry’s public relations firms to cover it up, the truth is coming out, and people across the country are educating themselves, and they’re beginning to educate their elected officials and holding them accountable to the kind of world that they want to live in, valuing our air and our water and the health of our families. And so that’s what we’re seeing across the country, and that’s why there are hundreds of measures now, almost 500 measures of local bans, where communities have either passed bans or resolutions against fracking in their community, because this is not the kind of future they want for their children.
For climate change what we’re seeing is that despite the fact that natural gas burns cleaner than coal, there are two major issues that are causing it to contribute aggressively to climate change. One is methane, fugitive methane, which is 87 times more climate-intensive than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. But beyond that, the plans to drill and frack thousands and thousands of wells across the country and all of the full energy lifecycle involved in that, from clearing the land to trucking in the water, to trucking in the sand, the burning of carbon dioxide alone associated with that would lead us to catastrophic climate change. And if you heed the warning of climate scientists, they’re saying we need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground and we need to aggressively transition to renewable and sustainable energy sources, as well as energy efficiency and conservation.
NOOR: So you made a few points there. Let me give Katie a chance to respond.
So what about the issue of the money that the oil and gas industry is pouring into these campaigns? Do you think that has swayed the debate, the public debate around this?
BROWN: Well, I mean, the anti-fracking industry is pouring money from all kinds of national groups into these local campaigns as well. I mean, there’s money everywhere. I don’t think that’s the issue here.
But I would like to talk about this methane thing, because the U.S. EPA has the best data on methane emissions, and their data clearly show that as natural gas production has ramped up significantly, to unprecedented levels, methane emissions have gone down significantly. And if we are going to listen to what the climate scientists say, then we should listen to what the IPCC said in its latest climate assessment, which is that the reason that we’ve had these significant reductions in CO2 emissions is because of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas use in the United States. And that’s also something that was determined by the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based agency. They said that our reduction in emissions, because of hydraulic fracturing and because of natural gas, is the bright spot in the global outlook for global climate change.
So, I mean, if we’re going to listen to the scientists, then shouldn’t we listen to the top scientists in the world on that point?
NOOR: And so what’s your response to that, that it is being a successful bridge fuel, and also Katie’s previous point that regulations can help lower the negative effects of fracking?
WURTH: Well, what we found when we reviewed the peer-reviewed literature on drilling and fracking is that there are not studies coming out indicating that regulations can manage the risks and the harms for drilling a fracking. And so there is basically not evidence out there showing that regulations will mitigate the inherent risks associated with this process, one of those being that wells fail.
And so what we’re seeing is that the industry has not been able to come up with a way to deal with the well casing failures, which is leading to a lot of the problems associated with methane release, as well as water contamination issues. And I think that that’s why those of us in Maryland think it’s incumbent upon the state legislature right now to pass this legislative moratorium and to allow time for the long-term and cumulative health studies to come out.
There’s also going–there’s not enough research on what this could mean for the economy of Maryland, either in terms of the thriving tourism and agriculture industry in Western Maryland. In fact, Governor O’Malley’s own economic risk assessment did not consider what the detrimental effects would be on the tourism industry in western Maryland. I know I’ve gone out there to ski and that there’s a lot of people that really want to enjoy the outdoors and not be concerned about the thousands of heavy truck traffic on those roads as well.
NOOR: But on that point, what would you say to landowners in western Maryland that want to sell their land to make a profit and to get some money in an area that may be suffering in a recession?
WURTH: Well, I would say that you should look to other states who are not seeing the kind of jobs that were promised by the industry and instead are seeing a lot of roads that need to be repaired, a lot of strain on social services, from everything from increased medical servicing needs to other social services for basic things, like we’re seeing increase in drug use and bar fights and other things that really affect the social structure of rural communities. And so I think–you know, I’ve driven through areas of rural Pennsylvania that were supposed to have benefited from this industry so much, and you still see that it looks like a lot of other parts of rural America.
And so what Governor Cuomo has done in New York is he’s made a commitment to invest $20 million in the southern part of the state for green energy job promotion. And that’s what we’d like to see in Maryland. We’d like to see Maryland follow the lead of New York and become a green energy and a sustainable energy leader. And that’s the way we can really be a leader in the country.
NOOR: And your response.
BROWN: Well, I think when we start talking about bar fights and drug use, then that’s a sign that the science isn’t on their side. I mean, the benefits are enormous. I mean, Towson University put out a report that said that in western Maryland there will be about a couple of thousand jobs at least and several million dollars in revenues, which would end up helping to fund road repairs and schools and hospitals and all of these things. And so these are real benefits. And the risks are manageable and the benefits are great is basically–.
NOOR: So I gave Katie the first word. Last word to you.
WURTH: I would say that the risks are serious and they’re not fully understood, and that the benefits are not of the nature that it’s worth risking our health, our water, that the lives of our children, and that there is a huge opportunity to have the vision to transition to renewable and sustainable energy in Maryland, and that’s what we’re urging, and that’s why we’re calling on the legislature to pass a moratorium on fracking this session.
NOOR: So, Katie Brown is a spokesperson for the Energy In Depth, which is a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
And thank you, Emily Wurth. She’s with Food & Water Watch, and she’s their water program director.
Thank you both for joining us.
BROWN: Thank you.
WURTH: Thank you for having us.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.