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On Fracking and Human Folly

Sometimes it makes sense to split the earth open—and sometimes it doesn't.

Anthony Ingraffea lives on 70 acres of woodland outside Ithaca, New York. He bought the land decades ago to hunt and fish and enjoy in the same way anyone enjoys wild spaces. Ingraffea is a fly-fisherman, and a tributary to the Trenton Black River runs through his woods. It's not full of trout, but there are more than enough to keep him busy.

One day a man came to his door and told Ingraffea that if he signed these papers agreeing to lease his land, Columbia Gas Company would pay him five dollars per acre per year and cut him in on part of the profits if they found anything. By anything the man meant natural gas. This was back in 1997.

The man described how they would get through the Devonian shale beneath Ingraffea's 70 acres using a method called hydraulic fracturing, and that it was very safe and the impact on the surface of his land would be minimal. Ingraffea didn't buy the woods with the small trout stream for the Devonian shale or natural gas reserves, so he was surprised—but not for the reasons the man at his door that day might have thought. Ingraffea has his Ph.D. in rock fracture mechanics and knows all about Devonion shale. He also knows all about hydraulic fracturing: He's been teaching courses on fracture mechanics at Cornell since 1977. He's also spent decades as the principle investigator for projects with NASA, the Gas Research Institute, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Northrop Grumman; he's taught the government and plenty of industries just what hydraulic fracturing is and how to do it. And suddenly, this man from a gas mining company was at his front door, telling him about the thing he'd spent his career on, asking if he would give his land over to it. "I'm not going to sign today," Ingraffea told the man, "I'm going to think about this."

Hydraulic fracturing has a totally excellent nickname: fracking. You may have heard of it, and not just because it's slang used in Battlestar Gallatica. Fracking is a contentious, fiercely debated issue that will either—depending on who you're talking to—usher in a new era of natural gas-based energy independence or wreak untold devastation on the environment. Lawsuits are springing up in Pennsylvania and Colorado over fracking, and a film shown at Sundance this year took on the topic. Just last month the Environmental Protection Agency launched a massive national study into the practice.

Fracking (and I'm going to continue to call it that, because the word is awesomely onomatopoetic) works like this: find a crack in the rock and shoot water, some sand, and other chemicals into the crack to make it bigger until you hit something useful, like natural gas. Ingraffea would probably balk at my over-simplification, but that's the point: This is not an easy thing to describe. In the current debate between the drill-baby-drillers (or frack-baby-frackers) and the not-in-my-backyard treehuggers the lines are black and white. It's "disrupting the environment is bad" versus "extraction and enterprise are good." But with fracking, nuance matters. Which is why, when Ingraffea told the man he'd think about signing those papers back in 1997, he really thought about it.

Ingraffea is the professor you want to have. He's brilliant and energetic and passionate about what he does. At the start of each course he tells his students that, "As an engineer you have a responsibility to the truth, but also to society. You take an oath to inform the public of any dangers to them." He gives them examples of engineers who should have known better, who might have known that their calculations were off or their structures were weak, but were too afraid of losing their jobs to say anything. He likes to use the example of NASA and the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger.

When fracking knocked on his front door that day, he knew it was also coming to his neighbors' doors, to his whole community around Ithaca. "I looked at my situation and said: Crap, I know a lot about what's going on here and I know that what's being told to the public is not the complete story. If I don't say something, I'm just like one of my bad examples." So, like a true professor, he made a PowerPoint lecture about it.

In fracking, the actual splitting of the rock is only one part of a very large, very complex process. Ingraffea uses that word throughout his lecture: "large" (also "big," "huge," "immense," "giant"). Focusing on the fracking itself to determine the safety of a given mining operation, he says, is like looking at a generator to find out if an engine is good or bad. Yeah, it's a key part of the process, but it's also just that: one part of a very (you guessed it) big process. In order to hydraulically fracture, a company has to use certain chemicals—hydrochloric and citric acid, ammonium persulfate, dimethylformamide, petroleum distillate, potassium chloride. See a full list of chemicals being used in New York operations here. These chemicals have to be brought to a well, stored on site, properly injected, responsibly used, cleaned out of the earth in a flowback process, stored on the site again, eventually transported off, then finally disposed of. If all of this is done in an environmentally safe way and nothing goes wrong, fracking is safe. But there's an awful lot of room for error there, especially the human kind. As Ingraffea puts it: "Statistically, the safest part of the process is injecting those chemicals five thousand to ten thousand feet. The first line of defense is rock, and I like rock. It's protecting the groundwater. I'd bet on rock any day. Before that, and after, humans are protecting the groundwater from those chemicals. I don't trust humans."

"There's a misplaced concern," Ingraffea continues. "Everyone's looking at the lowest probability event as the thing they're most concerned about. Now, will it have the highest impact if something goes wrong? Sure. But the mining companies are happy to have the EPA focus on the process that is statistically safest. The other thing people don't understand is that these mining operations are ongoing experiments. When these operations come to land-owners and present a lease, they don't say, 'your property is going to be part of an ongoing experiment.'"

What Ingraffea means by this is pretty simple: Every time you puncture a hole in the earth and shoot chemicals at high speed into it, you are faced with a new challenge. So when the mining industry says, "We've done this successfully in Colorado or West Virginia or Pennsylvania, so we can do the same here in New York," that's just not true. What was learned in one place is not guaranteed to work in the next. "Mother Nature owns the stuff down there, and it's as good as we can guess to get it," Ingraffea says.

The last myth Ingraffea likes to dispel is the myth of energy independence. There is no question that the United States has a ton of natural gas sitting under it—500 trillion cubic feet is the latest estimate in the Marcellus shale surrounding Ithaca. But this 500 trillion cubic feet represents a 20-year supply of the stuff at our current rate of consumption, and natural gas only accounts for 23 percent of our total energy needs. The kicker is that to get all this gas would take 50 years. So every year on average that's one fiftieth of twenty-three percent of a 20 year supply. It's not insignificant, but it's no silver bullet for our short-term energy needs. Rather, Ingraffea suggests we use natural gas as a way to wean ourselves off coal, the dirtiest fuel we burn. But this, he says, points to the largest myth of all, the myth that "somebody's in control." We have, he says, "No national energy strategy, no oversight to maintain the standard of living while decreasing our impact on the environment, which should be the cornerstone of any energy policy."

Ingraffea took his PowerPoint presentation to the local chapter of Trout Unlimited (he's a member); he presented it to the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, and in public meetings with the the gas companies, who wanted to lease the land around Ithaca for their operations. It wasn't that he was campaigning against Columbia Gas, and he certainly wasn't campaigning against fracking, which, after all, he had spent his career working on. It was just that, as a professor and engineer, he had a responsibility to make sure all the information was out there, and then let folks decide for themselves. Still, people at the meetings accused him of pushing his opinion rather than the facts. One guy said he should go home and turn off the gas in his house if that's the way he felt about things. Another guy came up to him after one meeting and said, "I've been a steward of the land, and my father has too, and now that we have the opportunity to make some money off it we're going to do it." Ingraffea shrugged and remembered that oath he took, the one about informing the public to any danger.

The day after the man from Columbia Gas came to his door another man came calling, this one from the Nature Conservancy, asking if he would sell his land to them. He did. "So now the land can never be leased, even though all the land around it has been, and all that gas around it will be taken. Probably the gas under my woods will be taken, too. But the land is forever wild. I feel good about that."

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