Fracking Democracy

THE EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing Public Informational Meeting was probably the strangest exhibition of performance art ever to grace the stage of the Broome County Forum Theater in Binghamton, New York.

Over the course of two days, a panel of EPA officials heard four hundred two-minute presentations by members of the public who had come to advise the agency, at its own invitation, on how it should design a scientific study. As ordered by Congress, this study will investigate the risks to drinking water posed by the Johnny-come-lately technology known as high-volume slick water horizontal hydrofracturing, which does to shale bedrock what mountaintop removal does to an Appalachian mountaintop: blows it up to get at a carbon-rich fossil fuel trapped inside.

In the case of fracking, the quarry is methane bubbles trapped inside impermeable layers of shale thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. To liberate the gas, millions of gallons of fresh water (high-volume) are mixed with sand and chemicals – some of which are carcinogens – and this slippery mixture (slick water) is forced, under immense pressure, into mile-long tunnels drilled sideways (horizontal) through bedrock. With the assistance of explosives, this poisonous solution shatters the shale (hydrofracturing) and releases a vaporous froth of petroleum, euphemistically known as natural gas, which floats up the borehole – along with brine, radioactive materials, and heavy metals.

So, last September in Binghamton, some four hundred members of New York State’s citizenry signed up to express their particular views on the question of how one might go about studying the environmental impacts of this sort of energy extraction. The EPA panelists sat in chairs on the commodious stage of this tattered-but-grand former vaudeville house, while, one by one, each preregistered citizen advisor approached a podium in the orchestra pit and offered up opinions. After 120 seconds, the microphone turned off automatically, ending the presentation of a sometimes still-talking, still-gesticulating petitioner.

Then the next person on the roster was called to the mike. And then the next. And then the next. For four solid hours. And then the panelists took an intermission and came back for another four-hour round of two-minute testimonies. And then there was a second day of speeches.

For members of the audience, who could see only the back of the speaker as he or she addressed the onstage panel, the sole visual element was a giant digital timer projected onto a screen behind the panelists that ticked backwards, second by second, from two minutes to zero, making the parade of speeches a cross between speed dating and a NASA countdown.

After my own 120 seconds of counsel – during which time I (rapidly) advised the EPA to consider revisiting its own prior investigation of PCBs in the Hudson River, at least some molecules of which seeped into the water through naturally occurring fissures and hairline cracks (seventy-nine seconds; talk faster) in the shale bedrock beneath General Electric’s factory floor, migratory pathways not previously known or even thought possible – I had plenty of time to listen to the other presentations.

Because the EPA had signaled a possible willingness to expand the scope of its study to consider cumulative impacts, the pro-drilling contingent was on the defensive. One after the other, the self-identified “landowners” – which seemed to be code for “people who believe that the federal government should not get between a man and his gas lease” – urged the EPA to “restrict inquiry” and “resist the temptation” of more deliberation.

Back in the cheap seats, I practiced sympathy for this position. What would it be like, I asked myself, to view scientific inquiry as meddlesome dithering? As someone who, in other circumstances, has argued that the time for action had arrived, I could almost understand the impatience of those who viewed fracking as a bold enterprise rather than complete lunacy.

But, soon, the repeated calls for expediency were followed by dismissive comments about water, and whatever empathy I might have felt for the opposition vanished. One man intoned rhapsodically, “Energy is Life,” and then added with a smirk, “Water is a Resource.” I thought that maybe I had heard it backwards, but then he repeated his assertion again, with even more sanctimony: “Energy is Life; Water is a Resource.” It felt like a Monty Python Drop-the-Cow kind of moment, but, alas, no cows fell.

And then came the untruths. The millions of gallons of fresh water used by gas wells during fracking operations are exceeded, claimed one petitioner, by the leaks in the New York City water system. They are exceeded by the water used to irrigate golf courses claimed another. Huge amounts of water are wasted doing all kinds of things.

A geologist friend and I looked at each other in wonderment, and in my head, I began to imagine a 120-second rebuttal. It would go like this: Fracking constitutes consumptive water use, which is different from what happens to water when underground pipes leak and water re-enters the aquifer, or when irrigation leads to evaporation and cloud formation. When water is entombed in deep geological strata, a mile or more below the water table, it’s permanently removed from the water cycle. As in, forever. It will never again ascend into the clouds, freeze into snowflakes, melt into rivulets, cascade over rocks, turn with the tide, soak into soil, rise through roots, or pour from your tap. It will never again become blood, tears, sweat, urine, milk, sap, nectar, yolk, honey, or the juice of a fruit. It will never again float a leaf boat, swell a bud, quench a thirst, fill a swamp, spill over an edge, slosh, dribble, spray, trickle, splash, drip, or glisten. Never again fog, mist, frost, ice, dew, or rain. It’s gone. To conclude: fracking turns fresh water into poison and makes the water disappear. That’s something we’ve not done before on a large scale. And by the way, water is life. It’s energy that’s a resource.

An older man rose to speak. He announced he had a special presentation. And then he let ten seconds of silence fill the theater while, before him, the monumental numbers projected on the screen blinked away.

After hours of ceaseless, rapid-fire speech, the sudden hush flowed through the overheated room like cool water. Someone giggled nervously. And then, finally, he spoke. That silence, he announced, represented the sounds of migratory birds. And tourists. And professors. And organic farmers. And thus with no words at all he reminded the audience of all the good members of our beloved community who would – if our land filled up with drill rigs, waste ponds, compressor stations, and diesel trucks – disappear, exit the cycle. As in, forever.

04. 03. 02. 01. Mute. And then he sat down.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Dear Orion,
    Wow! The “Fracking Democracy” article was very enlightening. Thank you for covering the extremely important topic of fracking. My wife and I really appreciate all the coverage that fracking can get. Our pure water is too precious to risk.

  2. My family settled outside Elmira NY in the 1890’s I care about what happens to the land.Why my Cornell graduate relatives do not is a mystery to me

  3. It’s a question of values. What do we as a society value? Short-term environmental destruction for short-term money/energy or long term environmental preservation for long-term life.

  4. Maybe my family has a very misguided belief that a Cornell education meant a good life of travel,etc bec how could a land grant college be in cahoots with destructive forces??The rape of the world could not happen if all the well educated people did not go along with it..

  5. Fracking, to me, is one of the worst things I’ve learned about in the past year or so. Just when I think it can’t get any worse, it does. There seems to be no end to the destruction and death human beings are willing to go to to make money (under the guise, of course, of providing “clean” energy for our energy guzzling lifestyles (that god forbid we should have to change).

    I used to think that educating people on the facts (as Jean said, “well educated people” would make a difference. People would know the truth, and change. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. People either ignore the facts, find other “facts” they like better (there are so many sources of bad info out there you can find something to prove pretty much anything you like), or shrug and assume “they” will figure something out before the worse happens. Again, unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen. When we have poisoned all the water, destroyed all the soils, polluted all the air, killed the oceans, when the pollinators are all extinct, etc. (all of which is happening now as Orion readers know), the human story will be at an end.

    When I began a life of writing and activism in the early 1980s I had hope. I believed change was possible, that things would get better, that we could create a sustainable way of living and that it would become obvious to people that the choice to do so made sense and was more important than making gobs of money. Since then my hopes have been dashed over and over.The system we have today is so out of balance, so top heavy, so skewed to benefit corporations and the wealthy elite (who somehow manage to think they aren’t like the rest of us humans) that I now feel the sooner it comes crashing down the better. Then we can begin to pick up the pieces and perhaps create simple lives worth living.

    We need to ask ourselves: what is the point of life? Is it to accumulate money and stuff? Is it to feed egos so we feel big and marvelous and important? Is it to have the so-called freedom to do as we please regardless of the consequences to others or the earth? Or is it to love, and feel, and cry, and laugh and celebrate and mourn, and cherish our families, friends, communities, and embrace the enchantment of living in such a beautiful, powerful, planet? I know, it’s a simplistic question, but our lives have become so complicated, so fast, so full of “must haves” and “must do’s” that there is little time to simply be a human being living in a world of magic and beauty. So we destroy it instead. It’s heartbreaking.

  6. I found Sandra’s article a pleasure to read. I found it entertaining, light in it’s delivery, yet powerful. Thanks Sandra for a very well composed article on this dire subject.

  7. Questions about fracking and environmental risks are important, the risks real. The article is unreal. Take the sloppy but all to common “some of which are carcinogens” about by products of fracking. Every time you burn a piece of wood in your campfire, woodstove or romantic hearth, you release powerful carcinogens. Every time you eat celery you ingest carcinogens. Just moving from sea level to Denver subjects you to more carcinogenic radiation. It’s meaningless and sloppy to condemn something because some of its by-products are carcinogens.
    And why the snide characterization of proponents as “self-identified ‘land owners'”? Her attempt at seeing the point of view of real landowners was insincere and short circuited by her own outrage. Understandable but not a basis for understanding.
    And why is natural gas a “euphemism”? It is formed from the ancient decay of plant materials and other chemicals when Earth had not yet seen a human. It’s gas. It’s natural. Except to the unnatural. Is methane unnatural when in shale but natural when the author farts?
    Finally, “What would it be like to view scientific inquiry as meddlesome dithering?” Just ask any geologist or other scientist who disagrees with the author. Or consider only the scientists who believe their research points to something besides fossil fuels as the main cause of global warming. They appear to be wrong, but they have been censored, scorned, ridiculed and blacklisted.

  8. Forgive me for perhaps being “childish” in my hoping that one day, the college degrees of my peers, friends, relatives, and myself will payoff in a way that brings together “luxury,profit, money,convenience” and “a healthier,back-to-basics homeostasis, non-endangered planet” WHERE IS THE TECHNOLOGY TO MAKE ENERGY IN A WAY THAT WILL NOT RAPIDLY DESTROY THE PLANET WE LIVE ON?
    Fracking is a SERIOUS issue. Fracking chemicals are not like a “secret recipe that compromises a proprietary gain”. They all use the same chemicals that kill living creatures. I believe in natural selection to an extent; everything has to die at some point, but I’m not going to sit back and die because my neighor didn’t do their homework and approved a business deal that kills a tributary river– all the while they enjoy the proceeds at a resort in Maui. Bring back manufacturing to this country so we can invest in technology like solar panels, or more electric cars, or I dont know, maybe something we haven’t come up with yet!

Commenting on this item is closed.