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Time for a tough talk on fracking’s inevitable danger

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Some weeks back, the news carried reports about a newly discovered by-product of hydraulic fracturing—radioactive waste. While the oil and gas industry vigorously promote the safety of fracking, as it is commonly known, we need to be concerned about several things.

First, the industry has done its best to downplay the dangers. When speaking before the Downtown Kiwanis Club two years ago, Tom Stewart, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, stated that all chemicals used in the process would be disclosed. As it turns out, the statute dealing with disclosure contains an exception for chemicals that fracking companies classify as trade secrets.

Second, the promise of jobs has suppressed environmental concerns. When promoting legislation, you can move mountains by using one of two magic phrases: “this will create jobs” or “this will be good for small business.” Whether you can prove either doesn’t seem to matter. But say either phrase enough, and it creates such momentum that environment issues are given scant attention.

Third, the industry is aided by too close of a relationship with government, both at the regulatory and legislative level. In 2012, representatives of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the agency mandated to regulate fracking, spoke at a legal education program about the fracking. They acted more like advocates than regulators—much talk about the benefits but no discussion about the potential hazards.

The Dispatch revealed that the ODNR had drafted a 10-page memo about fracking that was critical of environmentalists and warned that “legal countermeasures and crisis readiness” by the state would be necessary in dealing with them. The memo also stated the need to enlist industry help to minimize the public’s concerns. Apparently aware of its own wrongheaded allegiance, ODNR recognized that its public relations efforts “could blur public perception of ODNR’s regulatory role in oil and gas” which would require “precise messaging and coordination” to counteract. While the memo may not have been implemented, its message is still troubling.

We see the tie between the industry and the legislature in the current debate over how much of a severance tax should be levied on gas. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported last July that the ten largest oil and gas companies contributed over $600,000 to Ohio legislators since 2010; 91 percent of the money went to Republicans, and $227,000 went to House Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, alone. Who’s opposing Gov. John Kasich on the severance tax he proposes? Batchelder and other Republicans.

The situation is reminiscent of President Teddy Roosevelt’s fight to end the collusion that existed between the railroads and oil companies. Republican Senate leadership opposed Roosevelt’s efforts and, as described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in “The Bully Pulpit,” was seen as “representative of the trusts” that controlled trade and was “in thrall to the business interests that filled their coffers through campaign contributions.”

Wherever there is human endeavor, there will be error. The oil and gas industry tells us it will always operate safely, and so we need not be alarmed. Really? Show me an industry involved in high risk operations, and I’ll show you a catastrophe. Think off-shore drilling leaks, underground mine explosions, airplane crashes, train derailments and so on. Things will go badly wrong with fracking—an explosion, a fireball, a chemical spill. It’s a matter of time. Will we be ready to respond?

I understand that fracking is here to stay, and I’m glad we have this resource to exploit, but the availability of a resource doesn’t end the discussion. The questions are, what net benefit will fracking provide, and how we will we handle the consequences of fracking? Fracking is expensive in ways that get little attention: the wear and tear on roads that were not designed to handle large volumes of heavy trucks; the depletion of water sources needed in the drilling process; the transportation and handling of wastewater from drilling; and the disasters that are almost certain to happen.

These are the issues that require our attention. Now that fracking is here to stay, can we start having meaningful conversations about them?

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