Prepared Remarks for Cornell Forensic Society Debate on Fracking

February 4th, 2014

by Sandra Steingraber


Opening Statement:


My name is Sandra Steingraber. I am a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences.


My academic training is in systems ecology, which is that branch of biology that has the most in common with economics. In fact, the two words “ecology” and “economy” come from the same Greek word: Oikos means “household.”


My own research and writing examine the ecological determinants of human health. I have a special interest in understanding how chemical exposures in early life can alter pathways of development in ways that raise the risk for costly health problems in later life, such as testicular cancer.


My interest in the dangers of shale gas began here at Cornell in 2009 at a conference on fracking sponsored by Cornell’s Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors, then at the Vet School.


I have no conflicts of interest. My conclusions based on the scientific evidence for harm have certainly led me to action. I am a co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, which is a statewide coalition. I am also a member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York and serve as science advisor for Americans Against Fracking. In all these capacities, I have called for a ban on fracking in New York.


Economic Consequences of Fracking:


Fracking is inherently dangerous to human health and to that part of the environment—namely, water and air—on which long-term economic vitality depends.


To be clear, I’m using the word “fracking” as shorthand for the whole process of shale gas extraction and all its ancillary infrastructure like compressor stations, flare stacks, waste pits, and pipelines–because you can’t have fracking in its narrow sense without massive industrialization accompanying it.


As such, fracking carries with it many financial risks that can—and do–incur ruinous costs to communities.


First, there is less recoverable gas in the ground than originally claimed.

Companies have exaggerated the size their reserves, as was revealed in a series of investigative reports by the New York Times and Wall St. Journal.


Here in the Marcellus Shale, the U.S. Geological Survey itself drastically cut the estimates of how much natural gas is contained in the bedrock from 410 to 84 trillion cubic feet. In other words, instead of 16 years of U.S. consumption at current levels of natural gas use, the shale beneath our feet could provide only 3.3 years of gas.


This fact alone means that the economics of fracking are necessarily boom and bust. The profits will be scooped up by members of my generation, leaving New York’s children with only a toxic mess, shattered bedrock, no recoverable gas, and no extraction-related jobs.


Even if we discount future economic prosperity and stick to the here and now, studies in other states have shown that production of shale has is already faltering in other shale plays—sooner than predicted– and that the gas industry’s promises for job creation have been greatly overhyped, short-lived, and have largely benefited out-of-area workers.


Second, fracking jobs are killing jobs. The on-the-job fatality rate for gasfield workers is seven times that of other industries, according Centers for Disease Control. That death rate is twice as high as what police officers face on the job.   Additionally, workers at the wellhead are exposed to high levels of inherently toxic substances, including silica dust.


Because silica sand is used as an agent of fracking, silica dust is released in great clouds at the job site. It is like asbestos. Silica dust is a known cause of lung cancer as well as silocosis, which is an autoimmune disease that is both disabling and progressive, meaning that even after exposure ends, the disease continues to worsen.


Studies from the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health show that dust masks cannot offer sufficient protection sufficient at fracking sites.


Maiming accidents, silicosis, and other chronic diseases caused by toxic exposures on the job site add economic costs in the form of worker comp claims and long-term disability that are ultimately born by all of us.


Third, air pollution in the form of smog accompanies fracking wherever it goes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has identified drilling and fracking operations as a leading source of smog in the otherwise pristine areas such as northeastern Utah. Areas of Wyoming now have air quality rose than downtown LA. American Lung Association data show that air quality in rural areas with fracking is worse than air quality in urban areas.


Many economic consequences follow from smog, especially here in New York, which is the nation’s number 2 wine-producing state and the number 3 dairy state. Ground-level ozone—which is what smog is—inhibit the growth of both grape vines and alfalfa, which mainstay of hay for dairy herds.


There are also costly health consequences for smog, which is definitively linked to asthma, stroke, heart attack, and low birth weight. Unlike pre-fracked areas of Wyoming and Utah. Upstate New York State air is not starting from a pristine baseline. We are downwind of many Midwestern industries and already suffer ozone alerts in the summer. Fracking New York would make bad air days worse. If we make bad air days worse, we New Yorkers will suffer more strokes and heart attacks. Our children will have more asthma.


Nationally, the annual cost of childhood asthma is $18 billion dollars. In a densely populated state such as New York, even a small uptick in childhood asthma rates, for example, would add costs to our Medicaid and public school systems. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism, and every child with asthma incurs thousands of dollars of direct and indirect medical costs each year.


Emerging data show elevated rates of childhood asthma is heavily fracked areas of Texas, elevated rates of birth defects in heavily fracked areas of Colorado, and increased risks for low birthweight among infants born to mothers residing near gas drills in heavily fracking areas of Pennsylvania. These are all terribly expensive problems whose monetized costs need to be projected. And, of course, contamination without consent is an ethical issue, which is why, in Oct. 2012, the American Public Health Association issued a policy statement warning that fracking threatens air, water, and workers, and members of the public.


Fourth, the economic consequences of fracking take the form of social blight. Sociological data show that, when fracking arrives in a community so, too, arrive increased rates of crime, drug use, drunk driving, sexual assault.


And, fifth, fracking represents a threat to Property Value and Mortgages. Given the hazardous nature of fracking and drilling operations, there is an inherent conflict with mortgages and property insurance. In home where drinking water supplies are ruined by fracking, home values can and have plummeted to nothing.


Closing Statement:

Objective evidence shows that the economic consequences of fracking are a net negative for New York.


If this evidence seems to be accumulating slower than the pace that drilling and fracking operations are rolling over the rest of the nation, it’s for two reasons:


First, the gold fever rhetoric that surrounds the rush to drill has oversold the benefits, underpriced the costs, and overlooked long-term risks.


And, second, the industry cloaks itself with secrecy, legal exemptions, and non-disclosure agreements that have impeded objective, academic research.


But as the science between to catch up to the tempo of the drilling, one thing is clear: the risks that the gas companies are required to disclose to their investors in their 10-K forms—which clearly describe leaks, spills, explosions, blow-outs, property damage, injury, and death—are real-life problems.


These problems make further investments in fracking foolish.


Fracking, which turns drinking water into a poisonous club to smash rocks apart is a Neanderthal technology. If we can store data in iClouds and carry around whole libraries in our pockets, we can surely also direct solar power to run these devices rather than blasting fossils out of the ground and lighting them on fire.


Fracking brings temporary profits to a few and permanent ruin to many. There is no place for it in our state. New York’s future is unfractured.