If you have been following the blogs here on that subject you will know that I have been in communication on the subject with Kathleen Hassall who lives in the US. We share similar concerns and so I was delighted to receive a long email from her the other day which I would like to share with you. Here is what she said (and I will write a response some time next week)..
Reading Mr. Willett’s words here about his own thoughtful struggle to
see the best way forward with regard to fracking, I am most struck by
the degree to which we are all in this together, this effort to find
our way through unknown territory, sometimes dark. There is hope in
this I think – that everyone in favor of breathing air, drinking water
and turning on lights at night is ultimately on the same side. I am
happy to be on Mr. Willett’s side.
Mr. Willett is right to suggest there are pulling wires of interest
and influence in scholarly publications, as in all arenas where
careers are made, and there is no gospel to be found in journals. In
the particular case of the researchers whose work was disparaged by
the shale gas industry spokesman – the researchers who compiled reports
from six states of illness and death among farm animals and pets
following exposure to fracking chemicals – one, Dr. Michelle Bamberger,
is a practicing veterinarian, educated at Cornell (a prestigious
private research university in the US); the other, Dr. Robert E.
Oswald, is a professor of pharmacology in the Cornell University
College of Veterinary Medicine. A recipient of both Guggenheim and
Fulbright fellowships, with scores of published articles, he has far
outdistanced the testing stage at which he had to publish in order not
to perish; he long ago established himself as a credible voice.
Surely on the specialized topic of animal health, these two deserve a
This is not of course to say – I think no one would suggest – that one
narrowly-focused article can be anything more than one small piece of
the complex puzzle over which we all now shake our heads. That an
industry lobbyist so quickly moved to brush this piece off the table,
I find troubling; here again Mr. Willett and I are in agreement.
It is at great cost to public understanding, and to authentic public
choice, that the dialogue on fracking, combative and polarized, is
also so distorted by fugitive information and unacknowledged interest
that every purported fact seems to require investigation. Meanwhile
wheels are in motion, driven forward by the very powerful engines of
anticipated wealth and national energy security, and it seems clear
the UK is destined for fracking. Even as I write this, Cuadrilla is
moving on Lancashire, waving hundreds of thousands of pounds.
What can we know as fracking approaches? The hydraulic fracturing
industry has adopted a rhetorical strategy famously employed by
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, US President 1933-1945. Taking office in
the darkest days of the Great Depression, Roosevelt delivered a
stirring inaugural address in which he declared, “The only thing we
have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror
which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Neatly here the new President confined all sense and all honor in his
own corral. In one sentence he reduced all possible camps to two:
self-terrified ninnies, dead weight on the backs of the valiant – and
those with clear eyes and steady nerves, the ones who would roll up
their sleeves, pitch in for the New Deal, and build the bridge to a
Of course Mr. Roosevelt, giving that speech in 1933, was perfectly
well aware that there was plenty more than fear itself to fear – some
40% of US banks had failed; unemployment was pushing hard on 25%; US
mining, logging, industry, agriculture, all were foundering; tens of
millions in America had too little to eat; and unrest in many cities
was turning violent. It would have ill-served the president’s
purpose to acknowledge any of this. He was not trying, after all, to
inform. He was trying to motivate. He was trying to recruit. He was
trying to sell a particular horse.
The fracking industry at present, likewise. Perhaps the most
effective of the industry’s self-promotional tacks is the suggestion
that questioners are emotional rather than rational, fearful without
cause, weak-willed, silly. Thus it presents its own science as hard
minded and definitive; it dismisses dissenting voices variously as
ignorant, irrelevant, or hysterical. What else should it do? It is
bent on directing the discussion to one conclusion.
(As to whether the fracking industry knows there are reasons to fear,
I present one modest piece of evidence. Understandably, the
“landmen”, industry representatives seeking leases, are not prone to
offer landowners lists of things that might go wrong – but the US
federal Securities and Exchange Commission dictates that potential
investors in any enterprise must have access to just such a list. No
doubt the industry strives to keep the obligatory catalogue as brief
and bland as possible, so as not to scare off money. Still, in 2008,
potential investors in Cabot Oil & Gas were apprised of possible “well
site blowouts, cratering and explosions; equipment failures;
uncontrolled flows of natural gas, oil or well fluids; fires;
formations with abnormal pressures; pollution and other environmental
In truth I don’t see how we can reasonably expect the shale gas
industry to volunteer information contrary to its own interests. As
much as Roosevelt was, it is determined to make the sale.
So at present we have the horse-trader’s emphatic assurance that the
horse is sound. He declines to have the horse examined by anybody
else before we buy it, and insists in any case nobody but himself is
qualified to judge the horse – and then he suggests that if we do not
reach for the reins, we are sissies. On this basis, shall we buy?
I return to the question of what we can know before the frackers have
at England. Mr. Willett is entirely in the right to suggest we
cannot know without careful investigation which of the many unsettling
reports about fracking are entirely reliable, and which may be skewed
by error, ambition, or special interest. We can know, however, that
in the US the shale gas industry, with its inexhaustible war chest and
its private stables of eager scientists, PR strategists, professional
lobbyists and lawyers, has not been able to contain a still-rising
tide of dissent. We can confirm that complaints and questions are
multiplying in every US state where fracking is underway. We can know
that questioners and dissenters on record represent a remarkable range
of experience, interest and approach. Among them are environmental
scientists and citizens’ rights groups, specialists in food safety,
fishermen, human health researchers, farmers, water quality experts,
investigative journalists, law professionals, landscape
preservationists, landfill monitors, the US Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, leaders in the Audubon Society, landowners
whose property has been fracked, and householders now able with a
match to ignite the water that comes from their kitchen taps. We can
safely assume that some of the myriad alarms raised by all these
disparate voices are unintentionally or even intentionally false.
What of the rest?
I do not like to think so, I would be happy to be wrong in this, but I
believe, on the basis of what has happened in my own country, and what
is happening still, that England is now in jeopardy. Perhaps the
fracking of your country is inevitable. Even if this is so, you who
fought to keep your forests whole, you who mourned the loss of your
ancient oaks–you have time, still, a breathing moment in which to
prepare. You can take action now to protect your country and your
people as far as possible from damage.
With one important exception, I want to endorse Mr. Willett’s
thoughtful and prudent suggestions as to what you might do, add one or
two specifics, and have done.
Mr. Willett expresses concern that Britain’s political leaders, in
their eagerness to streamline progress, may to some degree exempt the
shale gas industry from regulation and oversight in the UK. Surely
not? If you doubt this would be a singularly boneheaded move, only
look west. Of all the reckless and costly decisions US policy makers
have ever embraced – admittedly a long and harrowing list – the
establishment of the so-called Halliburton loophole, exempting the
shale gas industry from federal environmental protection laws, is a
strong contender for the most benighted. This is an industry that
injects millions of gallons of water carrying hundreds of chemical
compounds forcibly into the earth. Did we not think this might have
some environmental effect that would bear looking into? The industry
produces millions and millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater
which cannot be made clean by traditional wastewater treatment plants.
Did we not think there were any unanswered questions here? Did we
There has been much talk in this fracking debate about risks – which
risks are illusory, which risks are tolerable, which risks are known.
There are risks entirely avoidable: simply do not lower the bar. I
hope Mr. Willett and others like him will succeed in persuading
Britain’s leaders to hold this new industry accountable to all the
laws already in place to protect your nation’s natural wealth. Why
else do you have those laws?
If the shale gas industry, as it insists, does not represent a threat
to the environment, it should not balk at careful monitoring or at
prohibitions of damage. Would not objective oversight and
information gathering serve to prove the justice of its claims?
Monitoring will also generate a growing body of information, so that
every decision to expand fracking will be better informed than the
Information gathering at every stage is key to minimizing risk. As
Mr. Willett notes, we need detailed information about potential sites
before fracking as well as during and after. We also need to know
precisely what chemicals are being injected at any given site – and too
much is at stake to permit the industry to withhold this information
as a “trade secret.” Without such information we cannot separate
coincidence from cause; we cannot document change; we cannot learn the
truth about fracking.
Risk can be reduced also by following Mr. Willetts’ advice on
site-by-site drilling approval dependent on information about local
conditions. In the US, some regions characteristically drought
prone – places where water is slenderly supplied by nature and already
overtaxed by human us – were nevertheless opened to fracking.
England can show far better sense. You know where your wildlife is
most vulnerable, where your wetlands are most fragile, where you are
apt to run short of water and where you are prone to flood. You can
identify the safest placements for shale gas mining operations.
Three more suggestions (again, based on what is happening over here):
Limit proliferation, at least until you’ve had a chance to see how the
first of the mines suit you. “Fracking by the Numbers,” a report
published in 2013, counts 82 thousand shale gas wells now operational
in the US, with 33,753 in the state of Texas alone. Whatever
opportunities there are in fracking operations for things to go wrong,
we have multiplied by tens of thousands.
See to the leases: very much can be done here to protect the
landowners who lease to frackers and to insure that damages done to
the countryside will be repaired. Here is a link to a document
prepared by Harvard Law School to advise US landowners on specific
issues the best lease will address, and specific rights it can secure:
http://tinyurl.com/Harvardleasingguide . Here is a link to an
article that appeared in the New York Times, “Learning too Late of the
Perils in Gas Well Leases,” about landowners who were unaware of what
rights they had given up, and what obligations they had assumed, in
leases they only thought they understood:
Use the full power and resources of your national government to
negotiate with the shale gas industry. Do not send, to dicker with
this formidable and hungry power, your earnest and cash-poor local
councils. With all due respect to your councillors, this is gnats
I have said I disagree with Mr. Willett on one point. I would rather
not – and in a sense I do not. He says fracking sites in England
should be approved only where there is “a known safe place for the
disposal of contaminated water.” I wish I knew of the existence of
any such place. This is the ominous question to which I have been
able to find no reassuring answer. I read in “Fracking by the
Numbers” that in the year 2012, contaminated wastewater produced by US
fracking operations amounted to 280 billion gallons. It is a number
stunning to thought. Where is the safe place?
I want to close on a more optimistic note: I do not at all doubt
England can do a far better job than my own country has done in terms
of managing this challenge. I even believe that if you do rigorously
monitor and regulate the frackers, you will will motivate them to take
care. You will lead them to develop ever safer procedures. Perhaps
even, with you looking constantly over their shoulders, they (with all
their money/power/science) will actually solve the problem of waste.
Here again, you people of the little boats, England can show the world.
From the land of the fracked, I wish you godspeed.
(And in the interest of full disclosure, I report that I am on
nobody’s payroll–and except as a breather of air, a drinker of water,
and a reader by lamplight, I have no dog in this fight.)