Editorial: Fixing fracking’s folly

The science behind the fracking of natural gas is evolving as rapidly as the process, which began in its current manifestation in the late 1990s, and clearly poses worrisome long-term issues.
In a recent interview (see Truthout.org, Friday, July 19) with Louis Aldstadt, a retired former vice-president of Mobil-Exxon who has become a spokesperson against the fracking process, Aldstadt notes that the oil industry’s strategy today is to suggest that natural gas is a bridge fuel and that it’s better for the environment than burning either fuel oil or coal. True enough, Aldstadt says, but then he challenges the oil and gas industry to start developing those renewable energy sources at the level that could meet the nation’s demand. Somehow, he suggests, the oil companies rarely get around to investing large sums in those technologies.
No surprise there, but in reading the interview political strategies come to mind that might prove effective.
First, launch a public education process about the long-term dangers of fracking; second, promote legislation to require stricter emission standards at the wellhead and ramp up fixes (a better process or use non-deteriorating material) for existing caps on the wellheads to reduce the escape of methane gas; third, to provide a compromise position that could, for example, mandate a percentage of funds from existing natural gas revenues be used for renewable energy production before new permits are granted (which would have even stricter controls) or some other solution that would make the use of the natural gas produced in North America a true bridge fuel to a nation that is honestly seeking to become mostly reliant on renewable energy.
The political premise is this: The country should be able to reach the goal of primarily running on renewable energy faster with the oil industry’s help, than it could by opposing the oil industry at every juncture. Colleagues working toward a mutual goal, in short, achieve the end result faster than if opponents fight battles in a long, drawn-out war.
In this case, proposing do-or-die mandates on an industry that would certainly fight such dictates with strong political help across many sectors of the nation — particularly in the Republican strongholds of Oklahoma, Texas and much of the South, as well as coal-producing states and states benefitting from the natural gas boom — will be fought at a high political cost to the country and to oil industry opponents.
Of greatest concern in the fracking process is that it not only releases methane gas at the wellhead, but that it also creates fractures in the earth that may allow the escape of methane through the earth’s crust over the next several hundred years, says Aldstadt. Scientists also know that concrete wellheads on existing natural gas or oil wells deteriorate within 100 years, allowing those drilled wells to leak gas for eons afterward. Because the oil industry has been drilling for more 100 years and have been quick to drill thousands more wells every year as we speak, there is no known quantity for how much gas will escape into the atmosphere for decades or centuries to come. Finding a fix for those leaking wellheads and reducing the escape of methane gas at the wellhead in future wells is seemingly an issue of technology and mechanics, not politics.
If public education on this singular issue were a national priority of the administration’s and of environmental groups,  one would hope that the nation could uniformly rally around the notion of promoting stricter standards at the wellhead and solving that part of the equation — at the very least, it’s a good place to start a collaborative process.
Interestingly, Aldstadt has become a pointman in the fight against fracking because he retired and bought land on the shoreline of an upstate New York lake near which an oil company had proposed to frack several wells not far away. He looked into the issue, studied the science and became involved. Nothing like self-interest to motivate a change of heart. We suspect the rest of the nation would have a similar reaction if it learned of the potential threats to their states, hometowns and neighborhoods.
Angelo S. Lynn

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