Our country is addicted to oil and gas. In recent years the technique of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, has gotten greater attention, both positive and negative. It is a Trojan horse, sold to us as a way to become energy independent, provide local jobs, and stimulate the economy. As an MD, I need to note that the disease, death and destruction of fracking outweighs its appeal.
Fracking is a process where a large amount of water is mixed with sand and/or chemicals that are then injected deep underground into rock formations, fracturing the geologic formations to release petroleum, natural gas, or other substances for extraction. With today’s technologies horizontal bores can be drilled for miles away from the well.
While the precursor to modern fracking has gone on for decades, the potential health and environmental risks associated with today’s fracking methodologies are significant. Since federal laws have failed to prevent fracking pollution and groundwater contamination so severe that some rural wells are now producing flammable water that literally burns, states like Illinois have been faced with attempting to regulate it.
Modern fracking across the country is so water-intensive it uses some seven billion gallons of water annually in just four western states—North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado—mixed with massive amounts of a "chemical cocktail," many of which are known cancer-causing agents, in addition to other kidney, liver, neurologic and respiratory toxins. The industry has refused to provide the identity of many of these agents under a "trade secret" law, though studies have identified more than 600 chemicals used. This lack of transparency and inherent "trust us" attitude is suspect at best in an industry that has brought us oil spills, pipeline breaks, and environmental degradation with their associated health impacts the world over.
This process is also premised on the assumption that there will be no cross-contamination of groundwater aquifers, demonstrably false. This assumes a leak-proof "plumbing" pipeline without mention of the potential for surface ground and air quality toxin contamination. It also fails to deal with the handling and detoxification of the millions of gallons of contaminated fracking water that result.
This new fracking is happening around the country and currently is being planned for California’s rich underground petroleum deposits. The California legislature is currently developing the oversight laws to regulate this industry. Senate Bill 4 authored by Sen. Fran Pavely recently passed the California Senate. Unfortunately this law does not protect the health and wellbeing of our citizens from the chemicals being used in fracking and even has the potential to gag physicians from revealing the impacts of fracking chemicals to their effected patients and consulting medical colleagues under threat of being sued by the oil and gas industry as their "trade secret" gets out. This gift to the oil and gas industry is unethical and forces physicians to break their Hippocratic oath. Yet this already is the law in states like Pennsylvania.
When it comes to safeguarding the public health, anyone who has the potential to impact it would be well served to abide by the medical dictum of "first, do no harm." As a family physician my responsibility is to protect the health of my patients and community. What is to be an acceptable risk for cancer and health risks of these toxins? Is it 1 in 10,000, 1 in 100,000? Who will decide? The oil and gas industry? In addressing incurable illnesses it is better to prevent what we cannot cure.
At the same time that we pursue fracking, our efforts are diverted from the bigger picture and the more pressing need to move away from our dependency on fossil fuel and toward the development of renewable forms of energy. Scientists tell us that of the existing carbon-based fuel in oil, gas and coal global reserves we can only consume ~20% before we reach the tipping point for catastrophic climate change and its resultant health implications. Without shifting the paradigm in energy sourcing, it is not a question of energy independence or whose fracking project is more favorable but more realistically a question of whose match will light the final fuse.
We have a limited time to get ahead of this process and work for real solutions to our energy needs while simultaneously protecting our health and environment. This is a time for the people to lead and the leaders to follow.
Robert F. Dodge, M.D., serves on the boards of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Beyond War, Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, and Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions, and writes for PeaceVoice.