A final word on the environmental impact of fracking

This is the final “Hot Air” in a series about “fracking”—a process used to extract natural gas from shale—and its potential impact on Connecticut. The first column gave a general introduction to fracking and mentioned a bill now pending before the Connecticut General Assembly to bar fracking wastewater from disposal here. The second considered the environmental problems of such disposal. The third—this one—discusses new approaches to solving the problems of fracking wastewater disposal.

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” This statement was made by Einstein during the 1940s in reference to nuclear war; these days, it has been applied to environmental problems. Following Einstein, how could we think at a different level about the problems of fracking wastewater disposal?

We could think about fracking without water. A gas could be used instead, such as nitrogen, CO2, or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). All of these have already served as substitutes, so the idea isn’t “futuristic.” Each one has technical advantages and disadvantages, but, given the importance of clean water to human life, all are better for the environment, and could potentially be cheaper.

We could think about new institutions to regulate the water impacts of fracking. Water doesn’t follow political boundaries. Watershed groups covering large geographical regions have already been created with legal power to protect drinking water quality for major metropolitan areas, such as New York, and interstate water compacts have been written for the same purpose. Arguably, such new supra-state water authorities have done better than state environmental agencies at protecting public water supplies from fracking, and they could be further empowered.

We could think about limits to fracking inherent within the gas industry. The existing system of pipelines for transporting gas not only is insufficient to supply new demand in the Northeast—Connecticut especially—and the Mid-Atlantic, but it has outlived the materials and the regulatory standards it was designed for. Both expanding the system and renovating parts of it will be costly, sometimes impractically so; in any event, the current low price of gas does not encourage gas companies to take on the necessary capital expense. The political calculus involved in getting a 21st-century gas pipeline system financed and built is too elaborate to cover here: suffice to say that this infrastructure development challenge is big enough, by itself, to slow down or stop fracking projects even without stricter regulation of water quality.

We could think about the much bigger environmental problem that fracking only exemplifies. The use of chemicals in production processes is poorly regulated throughout every sector of the US economy. For starters, producers tend to withhold information about the chemicals they use. Give environmental protection officials the power to obtain such basic information, and progress on environmental pollution of all sorts could quickly follow—progress on water pollution, and, yes, progress on fracking wastewater disposal.