Mother fracker

In the Finger Lakes region of New York state, where I live, hydro-fracking has hit the top of the list of contentious, momentous political issues. If you haven't heard the term, hydro-fracking might sound like some kinky water sports. It's actually shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, an extremely invasive method for extracting natural gas from very great depths. The gas companies are especially covetous of the "Marcellus Shale," an ancient geological formation in central New York and Pennsylvania. We, for our part, are justifiably jealous of our water sources.

Fracking proponents assert that we need the energy, need the jobs, need the money. And the industry has gone around handing money to property owners to lure them to sign leases permitting exploration and drilling. The upstate economy was already stagnant before the current depression began, so it's hard to argue with cash in your pocket. But a lot of people are having second thoughts as they see their neighbors' land torn up and their groundwater threatened with contamination.

Fracking on one single site involves the high-velocity injection of millions of gallons of water—which then becomes toxic wastewater and needs to be stored—and hundreds of tons of chemicals. What kind of chemicals? Well, we don't exactly know, because the whole process was exempted from federal regulations under Dubya, but it's a sure bet that carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and other nasties are part of the cocktail. (This month, Obama's EPA finally demanded that Halliburton and its competitors disclose the chemicals in their fracking fluids.)

"We can't drink natural gas" is a bumper-sticker slogan but it captures the heart of the conflict. Fracking, like Deepwater Horizon, embodies the stage we're at in terms of energy technology; the brilliant Michael Klare has called this "the age of tough oil." Fossil fuels are getting harder to find and extract, which means increasingly aggressive methods to get at them and more severe environmental consequences.

Back in the early 1970s, as the environmental movement got underway, Paul Goodman was one of those who warned about this kind of techno-hubris. Here's the nails-it quote from New Reformation:
The complement to prudent technology is the ecological approach in science. To simplify the technical system and modestly pinpoint our artificial intervention in the environment is to make it possible for the environment to survive in its complexity, evolved for a billion years, whereas the overwhelming instant intervention of tightly interlocked and bulldozing technology has already disrupted many of the delicate sequences and balances.
Indeed, the Marcellus Shale dates back to the Devonian era: that's 400 million years ago, folks. Don't frack with my pachamama!

[Two upstate groups in the fight are Shaleshock and Catskill Mountain Keeper; the documentary Gasland takes on the issue quite dramatically—including the now-famous shot of the Colorado family with the flammable tap water!]