Photo Caption: Abrahm Lustgarten, center, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, continues to discuss some myths behind fracking Tuesday with students and faculty after presenting at The Schuneman Symposium.
ProPublica environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten began Tuesday's Ohio University's fifth annual Schuneman Symposium on Photojournalism and New Media by cautioning against unregulated hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.
"(Fracking's) harm to underground water supplies is a long-term threat," said Lustgarten. "It should be one of our greatest concerns. We really don't know much about what the long-term risks are."
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process of blasting deep shale layers with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand, in order to release gas and oil and bring it to the service. Fracking in horizontal deep-shale wells has revolutionized oil and natural gas development in the U.S. and world, potentially turning this country into a net exporter of natural gas.
However, this deep-shale process is hugely controversial, including here in Athens County, which may or may not experience widespread drilling but already has been the site of several fracking disposal wells.
Opponents of fracking fear the environmental consequences of unregulated injections (and later disposal) of the fracking waste liquid deep into the ground, while proponents say the process is safe as long as it's engineered, operated and monitored carefully.
It's difficult to determine how safe or unsafe fracking is because scientists do not know what chemicals to test for, according to Lustgarten. During testing in Colorado, researchers found the toxic chemicals benzene, touline, ethylbenzyne, and xylene in samples. Trace amounts of these are enough to contaminate a water supply, Lustgarten said.
Athens County currently has five Class II (deep) injection wells with plans in the works for more. The wells are used to dispose of fracking fluids, most of it reportedly coming from out of state.
Lustgarten began reporting on fracking for ProPublica in 2008, before the term or the practice entered public consciousness. ProPublica is an independent nonprofit organization that funds extensive investigative journalism in the public interest.
"For much of the next four years, I heavily investigated the drilling industry." Lustgarten said. "The more I examined it, the more I found issues and contradictions."
He called the environmental issues associated with fracking "deeply concerning." Concerns include water and air pollution as well as noise and other societal issues in areas where drilling occurs. Lustgarten said he wanted to "connect the dots" between different areas that experienced hydraulic fracturing. Each place experienced similar issues, including health concerns due to water contamination and well explosions.
Much of the debate is whether the fracking fluid can seep through rock underground and pollute the water supply. Experts are split, and Lustgarten said he has unearthed evidence that it may be harmful. There's no conclusive scientific proof of the link between drilling and the rise in subsequent health complaints. On the other hand, the oil and gas industry's widely circulated claim that movement of fracking fluid through rock underground is impossible has never been substantiated.
"Our understanding of fluid movement underground is limited," Lustgarten said.
He said he believes that the future of fracking will involve strict regulation of the process, in a similar way that public waste disposal is managed. Fracking is currently exempt from environmental acts, mainly the Safe Drinking Water Act, problematic because mounting evidence indicates that it may impact the water supply. He said that it can be done implemented without environmental harm, however, a notion that many bitter fracking critics would be reluctant to accept.
"I don't see the development of natural gas fracking as wholly wrong," Lustgarten said. "Its benefits as a natural energy supply could lead to climate improvements. There's potential for regulation..."
Athens County has become a hotbed for opposition to deep-shale drilling and horizontal hydraulic fracturing; there have been a number of protests opposing it, and activist Madeline ffitch has made headlines since June 26 when she chained herself to two concrete-filled barrels at a fracking waste disposal site southwest of Athens. She was subsequently arrested, becoming a cause cél bre for the anti-fracking campaign.
Coincidentally, one of Lustgarten's major exposés of the fracking industry, "Injection Wells: The Poison Beneath Us," went online five days before ffitch's protest.
Some in attendance Tuesday morning expressed disappointment that Lustgarten did not come out in favor of a complete ban on fracking, a step that the city of Athens is seriously considering.
Lustgarten called regulation "an obvious step" but also said that grassroots activism can promote change. "There's potential for regulation," he said. "There's also a huge role for behavioral change and activism to reduce energy use."
The two-day symposium was sponsored by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at OU, and Lustgarten called on journalists to continue spotlighting issues.
"Investigative reporters need to keep a magnifying glass on the risks (of fracking)," he declared.
Lustgarten said that he has come under fire by proponents of big oil and gas companies, who have attacked him and his work. This has caused him to be extremely precise and careful in his reporting
"I've never faced as much scrutiny and criticism as since I wrote my first fracking article," Lustgarten said. "The dangers of getting this story wrong are more than usual."
The nature of ProPublica's mission allows Lustgarten to maintain "a steady drumbeat over time," reporting on the issue. Lustgarten said that it's difficult to report on fracking, because people do not want to hear unsettling news and do not want to believe it. He also had trouble finding unbiased sources, as many leading experts have taken a public stance on the controversial topic.
"It's difficult to rely on either environmental organizations or the gas industry," Lustgarten said.
He said that the three reasons a major company will change the way it does things are excessive cost, government regulation, and a catastrophe or public embarrassment. He said that the media can be a forum to highlight problems and help enact change.
"The essential questions remain unanswered," said Lustgarten. "We need to keep on fighting to answer them."
The Symposium on Photojournalism and New Media is made possible through a gift from R. Smith and Patricia Schuneman, both graduates of OU and now residents of Okoboji, Iowa.