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Fracking, Keystone XL, Mountaintop Removal and More

Energy

Stefanie Penn Spear

On Jan. 10 at 1 p.m. on the west lawn of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, concerned citizens from all over the state will gather to ask Gov. John Kasich to impose an indefinite moratorium on Ohio's oil and gas wastewater injection well sites and the natural gas extraction process that has become well known as fracking, until further research and proper regulations are put in place to protect human health and the environment.

This protest is in response to the 11 earthquakes that have hit the Youngstown, Ohio area since March 2011. The most recent earthquake, with a 4.0 magnitude that was felt nearly 200 miles away, shook the community on New Year's Eve. Won-Young Kim, a research professor of seismology geology at Columbia University who is advising the state of Ohio on the Dec. 31 earthquake, said that circumstantial evidence suggests a link between the earthquake and high-pressure well activity. Kim said he believes that the recent earthquake did not occur naturally and may have been caused by high-pressure liquid injection related to oil and gas exploration and production.

Fracking is a method of gas extraction that involves injecting a brew of toxic, heavy metal lubricants, chemicals and sand deep underground to fracture rock formations that release oil and gas. Hydraulic fracturing uses enormous quantities of fresh water, which gas companies take from nearby streams, ponds and rivers, or truck in if there is no immediate water source. Every time a gas well is fracked, four to nine million gallons of water are injected into the ground with a secret brew of chemicals. A single well can be fracked up to 12 times, totaling more than 100 million gallons of freshwater used in the lifetime of a well.

Some of the fracking fluid used in the process of breaking apart the shale remains underground, but a large majority of it comes back to the surface mixed with hazardous chemicals, volatile organic compounds, and even radioactive material that was trapped underground and released in the process. This wastewater is then trucked to a disposal well and pumped back underground. With millions of gallons of hazardous liquid created during this process, a major challenge for the natural gas industry and regulators, has been the disposal of this toxic byproduct of fracking.

It is this toxic wastewater that is being high-pressure injected into many of Ohio's deep wells, as far down as 9,000 feet, and blamed for the recent Youngstown earthquakes. Thanks to Ohio's geology and the Kasich administration, along with other elected officials, Ohio now receives about 1,000 truckloads of frackwater everyday at disposal wells around Ohio. Ohio is home to 177 oil and gas wastewater injection well sites, 10 times more than surrounding states. More than half of the fracking wastewater coming into Ohio is from out of state, including from New York and Pennsylvania.

Concerns on how to dispose of fracking wastewater are only one of the problems associated with natural gas extraction. Fracking has been linked to more than 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination across the U.S., including cases where people can actually ignite their tap water. There is no doubt that proper regulations on the state and federal levels are lacking.

In New York state, opponents of fracking are asking lawmakers to extend the moratorium that was put into place in 2010, due to concerns that hydraulic fracturing, without proper regulation, could pollute groundwater.

Concerns over the extraction of natural gas are experienced worldwide and impact rural, suburban and urban communities. The number of anti-fracking groups is growing every day. Frustrations are running high as the U.S. continues to lack a sustainable energy policy that puts a cap on carbon and supports investment in renewable energy generation and manufacturing instead of supporting extreme fossil fuel extraction.

On the federal level and in Ohio and many other states, incentives for renewable energy projects and manufacturing need to be put back in place. Three years ago we were making some progress in moving toward a sustainable energy supply. But over the last couple years, states and the federal government have stripped away the incentives that were a first step in leveling the playing field between renewable and nonrenewable energy. Since the fossil fuel industry is so highly subsidized and externalizes much of its costs, the renewable energy industry cannot compete without the help of incentives.

In Ohio, we passed SB 221 in July 2008. It mandates that 25 percent of Ohio's electricity generation come from advanced energy sources by 2025 with 12.5 percent from renewable sources including hydro. Half of the renewable energy generation has to come from within the state. It even contains a 0.5 percent solar carve out that has increased the value of solar renewable energy credits in the state. Coupled with this legislation was the Ohio Advanced Energy Fund grant program that provided a financial incentive to invest in renewable energy projects. However, the legislature failed to renew this grant program in 2010 and the number of projects in our state has greatly declined.

Creating jobs at the expense of human health and the environment is not sustainable. Energy generation is not a job vs. the environment issue. It's a need for a cleaner environment creating jobs—green jobs that will transition our country to relying on cleaner, renewable sources of energy. Investment in renewable energy will create jobs, revitalize our strong manufacturing base and provide long-term solutions to our energy needs without contaminating our drinking water, polluting our air, displacing communities and making people sick.

I know there's no perfect solution or silver bullet that will generate all the world's energy needs, but it is clear that supporting extreme fossil fuel extraction—like fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sands mining or building pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL that would take the most toxic and corrosive oil from Alberta, Canada and pipe it through the breadbasket of America to ship it overseas—is not the answer. Energy efficiency, investment in distributed generation and grid-feeding renewable energy projects, rebuilding the electric grid, and investment in battery storage and innovative energy technologies is the direction our country needs to take.

The next several months are going to be interesting. As of right now, according to the House Energy & Commerce Committee clock, Obama has 43 days to decide on the Keystone XL pipeline as stated in the payroll tax-cut extension bill passed at the end of last year. Gov. Anthony Cuomo will decide on the fate of New York's moratorium on fracking as early as this week. Ohioans will speak out on Tuesday concerning their fears of continued natural gas extraction and disposal of toxic wastewater in their state. Public comments are being accepted on Obama's proposal to allow drilling in the pristine Arctic Ocean and increased drilling in the Gulf of Mexico before adequate safety standards are in effect. Regulations aimed at limiting harmful power plant pollution that crosses state lines (including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which annually would prevent 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 heart attacks and 400,000 cases of asthma) have been put on hold by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

I've been working in the grassroots environmental movement for more than 23 years.  I've never seen so many people so worried about the health of the planet and concerned for future generations as we continue to consume resources at an unprecedented rate, and allow corporations to run our government and privatize our natural resources. I've also never seen such incredible grassroots leadership and collaboration among environmental organizations as we have today. Like I said, the next several months are going to be really interesting. Be sure to stay-tuned to EcoWatch.org as we keep you up-to-date on all the issues.

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