Students For Environmental Action (SEA) hosted a viewing of the documentary Gasland and panel discussion this past Monday, Nov. 12, in order to raise awareness about fracking in Maryland and to help students understand its environmental effects.
The panel was led by three specialists on the issue, including Shane Robinson, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and the Environmental Matters Committee, Miranda Carter from Food & Water Watch and Earth & Planetary Sciences professor Linda Hinnov.
SEA Publicity Officer junior Thalia Patrinos came up for the idea for the event because so many students had no idea what fracking was.
“[Patrinos] knew all about fracking and how it was a huge problem,” Events Chair senior Stephanie Spetka, who helped plan the event, said. “It’s surprising how many people you can [ask], ‘Do you know what fracking is,’ and they say ‘I have no idea.’”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of drilling for natural gas by injecting a liquid into the shale, which is a form of underground rock. This process can pollute drinking water and affect those who live nearby the drilling sites. Many, however, see fracking as a transition from dirty energy, such as coal, to renewable energy sources.
“That’s the problem,” Spetka said. “A lot of people don’t know about it or they know about it as clean energy because that’s how it’s advertised, but that’s not necessarily true.
The group viewed Josh Fox’s documentary, Gasland, which was released in 2010. It concentrates on the process of fracking and examines the communities in the United States affected by it.
Fox was inspired to write the documentary after a gas company offered him $100,000 for lease on his family land in Pennsylvania.
The documentary follows families affected by chronic health problems in Colorado, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, caused by citable issues in the drinking water. The film discusses fracking with a wide variety of experts, including gas industry executives, politicians and scientists.
Carter, who has the rights to the movie, helped Spetka bring the screening to campus.
The panelists addressed questions including the facts about fracking as a drilling method, the legislature surrounding the issue and the economic effects of fracking. The speakers also addressed their own ideas of whether or not natural gas is a long-lasting option.
The panel began by discussing what makes fracking an environmental concern. Unlike older forms of natural gas drilling, there is a higher chance for pollution issues, formed by mechanical problems that could cause chemicals to leak into drinking water.
Hinnov explained that drilling minimizes the actual damage above ground.
“When you set up and drill in multiple directions, you minimize the set-up of pads,” Hinnov said. “However you’re going deeper, going longer, going in different directions. The drilling could last longer so you have to incorporate more additives… You can go longer, a quarter mile horizontally.”
The panel then moved on to talk about the legislative issues in Maryland, as well as at a federal level. In Maryland, fracking is concerned with many counties in western Maryland surrounding the Marcellus shale, including Alleghany and Garrett counties. People have not only been worried about fracking in Maryland; it has become a national issue especially in nearby states such as West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania where companies have been forced to reveal their statistics, some natural gas companies cited one in seven sites failing, leading to pollution of the drinking water. Besides these obvious concerns over drinking water, houses have lost values and workers coming in to drill have disrupted communities.
This issue is especially important to Spetka because of her background. She is originally from New York, which also contains part of the Marcellus Shale.
“Since I’m from New York, that hits close to home for me,” she said. “I don’t want them to start fracking there.”
Zhen Lu, a recent 2012 graduate who attended the panel, expressed his interest in both the economic and social aspects of fracking that the panel discussed.
“It was pretty interesting to realize that there’s a lot more in this industry than the profits made, there’s actually people’s lives directly influenced, so that was a bit humbling,” Lu said.
Despite these problems and numerous protests, the country has failed to pass sufficient legislation protecting communities from fracking. Robinson explained how an executive order has set up an advisory committee in Maryland. Nonetheless, the committee requires funding and such funding has passed in the house but not the senate. It is an executive order but it is not mandated.
“They could offer permits [at any point],” Robinson said.
One of SEA’s goals was to raise as much awareness of the issue as they could in order to stop fracking from expanding past Western Maryland.
“We want to make sure it doesn’t move any further and hurt the rest of Maryland,” Spetka said.
At a federal level, the fracking act has also received little support. “The frack act failed — that’s to put fracking back into the Safe Drinking Water Act. It failed. It has no teeth. It’s not going to pass anytime soon, which is really discouraging,” Carter said. “[If the bill were passed] that would mean they would have to tell us what the chemicals are, that they would have to ensure that they are not impacting drinking water and if they do they would have to clean it up.”
Carter continued to address the myriad problems without the legislature over the companies.
“You just saw what they can get away with… and that’s only one of the federal laws. Of course we want fracking back in the Safe Drinking Water Act, but it’s also exempt from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act the Superfund Act,” Carter said.
Beyond the political relations surrounding fracking, the panel also addressed economic concerns. Natural gas is thought to be an essential part of the United States energy portfolio.
“Natural gas is part of the portfolio to a degree. It would be crazy to say it’s going to play no part. Probably something in this room or something on this campus is helping us have this discussion right now is powered by natural gas,” Robinson said, “But how much is the question.”
Hinnov addressed the idea that there is most likely no more than 150 years of current energy resources left and that natural gas is thought to be a “bridge fuel.”
Robinson also expressed a concern over natural gas considered being a bridge fuel.
“I was a kid when they first started talking about this as a bridge fuel, in the eighties. It’s been thirty years. That’s a long bridge. I don’t know if it’s going in the right direction,” Robinson said.
Junior Ben Ketter expressed an interest in the debate surrounding whether to not invest in safe fracking techniques.
“The technology is unsafe and the state of the technology as it is doesn’t really allow for the safe practice for hydraulic pumping. There’s a basic divide on the issue on whether to develop a fracking technology or develops a clean energy technology and how much to invest in either one,” Ketter said.
Despite protests from a wide variety of environmental groups, the panel further discussed the fact that fracking continues to gain support. Many buses advertise that they are powered on “clean natural gas.”
In addition, Hopkins alumnus and mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg has come out in support of fracking. Backing has continued to pour in from sources such as ads NPR radio and as has many editorials in The Washington Post.
Carter expressed concern that the natural gas companies have a great PR company, the same company that did PR for tobacco companies when people learned that cigarettes caused cancer.
Hinnov expressed hope that as fracking moves east, however, people will become more concerned with the issue. “I expect it will be a lot better than it has been out in the West,” Hinnov said.
At the end of the panel the students were offered the chance to sign a petition from the Food & Water Watch. Spetka was very pleased with the turnout and hopes that SEA will do a similar event next semester. Matt Damon is coming out with an anti-fracking film called Promised Land that SEA could watch.