I subscribe to a news clip service on the oil and gas industry, where I get a lot of my ideas for this blog. Almost half of the news stories for August 20 had something to do with hydraulic fracturing (“fracing” or “fracking” – the latter spelling seems to have become predominant in the media, although the industry continues to use the former). Most of the fracing stories have to do with the controversy over its environmental consequences – is it safe or not? Does it reduce carbon emissions or not? Does it pollute groundwater or not? Does it need more regulation or not? Recently the debate over fracing is bubbling up in Europe, expecially the UK, and in the California legislature.
An interesting article reflecting on the debate is in The Guardian, titled “Fracking debate: what does the battle for lead-free air teach us?” The author compares the current debate to past debates over the toxicity of lead — the discovery in the 18th century that lead was poisonous when ingested, and the more recent debate over the safety of lead in gasoline. In both instances environmentalists warned of its danger, the industry opposed its elimination, and politicians waffled. The article’s conclusion:
So what lessons can we draw from the story of lead? First, that society will enthusiastically adopt new technology without considering the consequences. Second, that you cannot rely on industry to act in the public interest, even when their practices are going to pollute the entire planet. Third, that politicians are no more responsive to issues of public health than they were in the 18th century. Fourth, that remedial action only happens when individuals make their voices heard above the clamour of vested interest. And finally disinformation is a standard industry tactic whenever profits are under threat.
I’m not sure that the current fracing debate is exactly analogous to the history of lead contamination, or that environmentalists are always right in their conclusions any more than that industry is always disseminating disinformation; but I do agree that it is important for politicians and the public to pay heed to the debate and seek the truth. Much is at stake, and the demand for energy, the driving force behind all of the controversy, is insatiable.