It's official. The spring of 2012 was the hottest on record, and as summer begins we have record heat across the Midwest, thousands of acres of forest burning in the West and historic floods in Europe. While there are those who scoff at the idea that human activities could possibly be the reason for this alarming change in our climate, 99% of climate scientists say that burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is the main culprit.
And so it's perplexing that when oil and gas companies claim they've got a new technology for extracting natural gas (hydrofracking, or "fracking") and that they've found enough reserves in the ground to let us burn this fossil fuel for another hundred years, they're not laughed - or thrown - out of town.
I came to the fracking issue by way of my interest in environmental toxins and their links to human health. In addition to running our music production and publishing company Omnimusic, [my wife] Patti and I also run an environmental non-profit,
www.Grassrootsinfo.org. When we discovered that gas companies were not only using toxic chemicals in their fracking process, but that they had been exempted from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, we were naturally a little suspicious. After all, why lobby Congress to exempt you from these laws if your process for getting gas out of the ground is so safe?
Well, it turns out fracking is anything but safe. The process involves blowing up the bedrock deep underground to free up tiny bubbles of natural gas that were trapped there millions of years ago. Chemicalized water is injected deep into the bedrock under extreme pressure and then sucked back up to the surface, bringing with it the bubbles of natural gas.
Along with the gas comes radioactive material (radon), as well as a toxic salty brine containing prehistoric microbes and the residual fracking fluid which may include any number of toxic chemicals, some of which have been associated with cancer, birth defects, neurological problems and other serious human illnesses.
Tractor-trailer trucks spewing diesel exhaust ply the back roads of fracking communities 24 hours a day, carrying construction materials, chemicals and millions of gallons of fresh water to drill sites. Others carry spent (and toxic) fracking fluid away. Diesel engines are also used for the pumps, compressors, generators and service equipment.
Exposure to diesel exhaust is a proven cause of both asthma and lung cancer, and a contributing factor in heart disease and other health problems. The World Health Organization has concluded that it's worse than second-hand cigarette smoke. Contaminated air can travel with prevailing winds for hundreds of miles, so serious air pollution affecting millions of people is a certainty with fracking.
The disposal of spent fracking fluid is another thorny issue without a solution. No water treatment plants are currently equipped to handle the toxic chemicals and radioactive elements it contains. In Pennsylvania, gas companies created giant lakes to store the spent fluid, and animals that were accidentally exposed died immediately. In Ohio, gas companies injected the spent fluid deep into the ground until areas of Ohio that had never had earthquakes before actually began to experience them. In some communities, traces of the toxic chemicals began showing up in drinking water supplies.
A MATTER OF PUBLIC HEALTH
In New York, Governor Cuomo is considering whether or not to permit fracking. When one of his aides told a friend last fall that the only way to get the Governor to ban fracking in the state was to get opponents to send "a million letters" to the Governor, we took the challenge, and AMillionFrackingLetters.com was born.
We started by making a short film explaining why it was so important to write to the Governor. Then we built a website, with a special program that lets people choose the issues that are most important to them and add their own personal comments. All the groups that were working on the issue across New York State signed on as supporters.
The next step was to use the power of local radio to reach people who hadn't yet made up their minds about fracking. I wrote some radio spots that featured a married couple talking about fracking and their concerns about their families' health. The ads directed people to the website. We placed the ads on stations all over New York state and ran them for a month.
The response was strong and immediate. The website lit up, the servers whirred away and in a few weeks we had tens of thousands of letters. These were sensitive, heartfelt letters from people who had lived in upstate New York for generations and who felt their very lives were being threatened by fracking. Eventually our funding ran out, and the radio spots stopped running. We're hoping to get them back on the air soon.
LEARN AND TAKE ACTION
For anyone who is new to this subject and/or has not yet seen it, drop everything and get a copy of Gasland (Sundance Special Jury Prize/HBO-featured/Emmy-winning/Oscar-nominated documentary), directed by ASCAP member Josh Fox, who has been an incredible leader on this issue. Invite all your friends and neighbors over to watch, and then talk about what you can do.
A FIGHT WORTH FIGHTING
As I write this, Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to get the final report on fracking from his Department of Environmental Conservation any day, and could begin to issue permits for fracking soon after that (See Josh Fox's great short The Sky Is Pink at PinkSkyNY.com, which has already had more than 100,000 views.) If you live in New York please consider writing to the Governor. Even if a few permits are issued, we need to keep the pressure on.
For those living in other states where fracking is already taking place, the mounting scientific evidence regarding public health impacts is fueling demand for more transparency from gas companies and much stricter regulations on the fracking process. Find a group and add your voice to the chorus.
To me, this is a fight worth fighting. It's the classic David and Goliath matchup: giant multinational oil conglomerates hell bent on profits versus grassroots organizations fighting to save human health and the future of our planet. People say we can't win, but I'm an optimist. I like our odds.
Doug Wood, a composer and founder of the Omnimusic Production Music Library, is an ASCAP Board member.