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Fracking complexities pollute Nov. Senate election

Credit: Emily Giedzinski/ Credit: Emily Giedzinski/

If you’re like me, the word “fracking” calls to mind viral videos of Yoko Ono dancing with an inflatable earth and people lighting their tap water on fire, all tinged with a touch of confusion. Fracking is one of those topics that manages to be controversial without being clearly understood. While the debate about fracking rages all across the country, the controversy, and the confusion, is most salient in our very own Pennsylvania, where it is seen simultaneously as an economic miracle and an environmental doom.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process used to remove oil and natural gas from shale rock formations deep in the earth. Millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped underground to literally fracture the shale formation, releasing gas and fluid to be extracted and used as energy.

This technique has become wildly popular in the United States, with nine out of ten gas wells using fracking according to ProPublica. It has exponentially increased the amount of natural gas and oil produced in the United States, and propelled us by leaps and bounds toward energy independence. American oil production had jumped 72 percent under the Obama administration by 2015, with the U.S. passing Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by some measures according to CNN. Energy independence is nothing to sneeze at. Reliance on foreign oil makes us vulnerable in international negotiations and sends a lot of our money overseas in exchange for oil. Further, we often get caught in military and diplomatic quagmires when we feel our access to oil might become restricted. If this is less of a threat, the U.S. will have less need for its deadly and expensive involvement in the Middle East. The American government will have more leverage in international negotiations when a basic necessity like energy is not a question mark.

Closer to home, fracking has revitalized the Pennsylvanian economy. Extraction from the Marcellus and Utica Shale Plays has made Pennsylvania the second largest producer of natural gas in the nation, behind Texas. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry credits the drilling industry with employing nearly 90,000 people in the state. With the decline of the coal industry, Pennsylvania’s economy has been hurting, with the loss being disproportionately felt by blue-collar workers. The federal government has tried to lessen the blow by promoting the growth of the tech industry with tax incentives and a push to bring broadband to rural coal country, but the transition from mining to tech has been rocky. The lack of comparable skills and need for extensive retraining leaves many mining communities out in the cold.

Fracking offers another possible replacement, one with a smoother transition. This potential for revitalizing coal communities was best illustrated in 2015 when Panda Power announced plans to build a new natural gas power plant at the site of the former Sunbury coal plant, that was shuttered in 2014, bringing jobs to a community that had lost its main economic driver.

The development of the fracking industry hasn’t been all sunshine and optimism, though. Environmentalists have voiced concerns about the effects of fracking, and the progress of the industry is littered with stories of nearby rural communities having their drinking water contaminated by fracking operations. In Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil and Gas Program has investigated over 2,800 complaints regarding water, according to The Huffington Post. Some 279 cases have been found to be directly tied to drilling activities. Another 500 cases are still open, some for years as the government flounders to draw a conclusion.

The problem is that the link between fracking and environmental damage and contamination is less clear-cut than the videos of residents lighting their sink water on fire would lead you to believe. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report that asserted that fracking is not inherently dangerous to drinking water, although spills and leaking wells can hurt local communities if not correctly handled.

Environmentalist groups such as EcoWatch called the EPA’s conclusion into question, citing the Public Herald’s discovery in June of 2016 of 1,275 water-related complaints from Pennsylvania residents to the Department of Environmental Protection that had been kept off the books and therefore out of the EPA’s investigation as evidence that the report underestimated the effect of fracking on water quality.

Currently, the only conclusion that can be drawn about the effect of fracking on the environment is that the jury is still out. But like every complicated issue that gets national attention, the lack of hard evidence hasn’t kept different politicians and interested groups from drawing their own conclusions and making demands. Environmentalists call for the suspension of all fracking operations until a full assessment of their environmental impact. With the memory of how governmental environmental regulations enabled coal’s decline still fresh, workers at fracking operations in coal country are suspicious of government regulations. Republicans tout America’s growing energy independence as the start of a new American Golden Age, while Democrats point to communities like Avella, PA, with it’s sand clogged pipes and foul, yellow water as examples of how fracking leaves communities behind. It’s a multilayered debate that is shaped by scientific confusion, political interests, and desperate economic need.

With the inconclusiveness and grey area of this topic, you may be wondering why we’re bringing it up at all. We’re talking about it because the future of fracking, for better or for worse, is irrevocably tied to the future of Pennsylvania, and it’s a future that will be at a crossroads this November. Senator Pat Toomey (PA-R) is up for reelection, facing Katie McGinty (D). With congressman Mike Doyle (D–PA) all of Pittsburgh’s representatives in the Pennsylvania General Assembly up for reelection running unopposed, this race is Pittsburgh voters’ only chance to shape the decisions around fracking in the upcoming years.

Toomey’s platform, according to his website, views the Marcellus Shale as an opportunity to “increase job creation, boost economic growth and provide more affordable energy for Pennsylvanians,” a goal that only considers the short-term benefits of extracting Pennsylvania’s natural gas reserves as opposed to the long-term detriments to our environment and lives. His voting record also shows a clear disdain for bodies like the EPA who attempt to regulate these processes to minimize impact and incentivize the switch to greener energy sources. While this may appeal to people relying on the economic boost of fracking, Toomey does not intend to protect Pennsylvania and its citizens from the possible adverse affects, and his penchant for deregulation could make the potential for accidents and contamination worse.

McGinty’s platform shows more initiative, but not necessarily as much as we would like to expect from a candidate with a planned campus appearance alongside Bernie Sanders. Her professional experience shows clear interest in environmental issues (chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Clinton, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection under Governor Rendell), but her experience has rooted her goals in a sense of realism. Her platform does not promise to end fracking in Pennsylvania, loosing her points with the left, but she intends to “support innovations in clean energy technologies and tax incentives that will level the playing field to move our country towards a clean energy future.” A slow transition to a future with more promise of green energy is preferable to the conscious choice to continue damaging our state, regardless of any scientific evidence.

In the end, nuance is key when dealing with an area with so many interests at play and so many shifting variables. Whatever your political leanings, it’s important to keep all the sides in mind on Election Day to make sure we don’t end up doing irreversible damage. And, above all, make sure you’re out there on Nov. 8 to have a say in our state’s future.