Banning fracking is the only rational option

Op-ed: Maryland should reverse course and ban fracking before it's too late.

Unconventional gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, has been intensely debated in our state for almost a decade. Initially promoted as a "clean" fuel that would provide cheap energy, create jobs and help the climate, fracked gas was embraced by politicians of both major parties. States like Pennsylvania and West Virginia welcomed the industry with open arms, setting in motion a vast public health experiment. Maryland wisely waited.

When Maryland began studying fracking in 2011, research on impacts was in its infancy. Yet by the end of 2015, there were almost seven hundred peer-reviewed articles on fracking impacts on air, water, seismicity, climate and human and animal health.

The emerging picture is clear:Fracking has no place in Maryland.

Fracking is bad for our climate. Fracked gas is largely methane, a greenhouse gas 86-times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. These next 20 years will be critical for stabilizing the climate. Methane leakage from gas development, production, distribution and well abandonment is much higher than previously understood, making fracked gas as bad or worse than coal or oil for climate impacts.

Climate disruption is a public health emergency.It threatens not only the nature, distribution, and intensity of disease, but also food supplies, national security, the economy and the foundations of civil society. Climate change cost estimates are in the trillions of dollars. And climate disruption is accelerating rapidly. Permitting fracking now is immoral.

Fracking harms human health. While the research on health effects is still in its early stages (as would be expected due to time delays between exposure and development of illness), 84 percent of existing public health studies show risks or actual harms. In 2015, separate studies looking at health outcomes in Pennsylvania showed a significant association between proximity to fracking operations and premature births, and increased hospitalization rates for cardiac and neurological illnesses in heavily fracked counties.

In May of this year, in Dimock, Pa. — ground zero for fracking — the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirmed that private well water had indeed been contaminated with a range of compounds that threaten health and safety.This month, researchers in Wyoming documented the presence of specific carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals both in local air emissions and in the urine of residents living near oil and gas operations.

Rather than address legitimate concerns, for years industry has tried to deny, distort and discredit claims of harm, or to buy the silence of those affected. The health harms we know about are likely the tip of the iceberg, but they are sufficient to justify a fracking ban.

Fracking destroys our environment. Building fracking infrastructure damages forests and soils, weakening the very ecological systems that stabilize the climate and purify air and water. Fracking also threatens farm lands and the health of our food supply.

To frack a single well requires millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals. Well leakage, spills and intentional discharges can irreversibly damage ecosystems. In North Dakota, over 3,000 fracking wastewater spills — roughly one for every three wells drilled — have led to widespread contamination of water and soil with salts, metals and radioactive compounds. Many bioaccumulate and persist for decades.

Water is removed from normal hydrologic cycles, a dangerous practice in times of worsening global droughts. Wastewaters injected deep underground for long-term storage are causing unprecedented earthquakes in Oklahoma and elsewhere. In Canada, earthquakes are being linked to the hydraulic fracturing process itself.

If we value our environment, a ban is the only rational option.

In 2015, rather than pass an eight-year moratorium with a scientific review in year seven, the Maryland General Assembly chose to pass a two-year moratorium with an automatic path to "regulated" fracking in 2017. This was unfortunate, as no regulations can adequately protect public health or the environment. This must be corrected with a ban in the next legislative session before fracking begins.

It's time to stop wasting taxpayer money and everyone's time developing and implementing impotent regulations for an outdated and destructive fuel source. Instead, all resources should be redirected to a real jobs program to enhance our economy and quality of life, while protecting our climate by moving rapidly to a 100 percent renewable energy-based economy, and restoring ecosystems and transforming land-use practices to allow biological systems to put atmospheric carbon back into soils where it's needed

Maryland is a beautiful state. Let's keep it that way. No fracking allowed.

Dr. Gina M. Angiola is a board member for Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility; her email is gangiola11@gmail.com.

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