Since before he went on the presidential campaign trail, Trump has touted what he sees as the benefits of natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In July 2012, shortly after the Obama administration issued rules limiting fracking on federal lands, Trump needled the then-President on Twitter, saying: “Fracking will lead to American energy independence. With price of natural gas continuing to drop, we can be at a tremendous advantage.”
Now as president, Trump appears determined to expand US fracking operations. In July, he issued a proposal to undo Obama-era standards that limited fracking on federal lands (although those standards did little to limit them elsewhere).
“I am going to lift the restrictions on American energy and allow this wealth to pour into our communities,” Trump told shale industry leaders in Pennsylvania during his campaign. “The shale energy revolution will unleash massive wealth for American workers and families.”
Unfortunately, it’s unleashed massive drinking-water contamination in communities across the US. And while neither the Obama administration nor Trump fully addressed the ongoing water-toxicity issues related to fracking, one small town in the Finger Lakes region of New York is serving as a model for other communities wishing to keep frackers at bay.
Sending Toxins into Water Tables
Natural gas fracking entails shooting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals into rock formations deep underground, with the purpose of fracturing them to get at the natural gas deposits beneath. The chemical make-up of a company’s fracking fluid is considered proprietary information, so federal law doesn’t require fossil-fuel companies to disclose that information.
According to a 2016 study by Environment America, “At least 137,000 fracking wells have been drilled or permitted in more than 20 states.” And while the lack of environmental-impact disclosure means that the scale of water contamination and other damage due to fracking is hard to determine, a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory noted that around ten percent of the chemicals commonly used in fracking operations are toxic to human or aquatic health.
For example, Environment America notes that between 2005 and 2015, fracking operations deployed 1.5 billion pounds of petroleum distillates, which can cause eye and respiratory irritation and can contain carcinogens and other toxins. Pennsylvania anti-fracking activist Karen Feridun alleges that in Berks County, frackers had even considered using landfill leachate as part of their fracking fluid until the community protested.
Fracking contaminates water when natural gas and fracking fluids seep into groundwater supplies, as well as when fracking wastewater containment systems leak or fail. In Pennsylvania alone, state regulators have confirmed 260 instances of private well contamination from fracking.
Fighting Off the Frackers
The good news is that communities are winning the right to protect their water and their local environment by banning local fracking operations—and one of the first victories took place in the town of Dryden, NY.
In 2009, representatives from the oil and gas industry began pressuring Dryden residents to lease their land for natural gas development. As those citizens learned more about what such agreements might entail, they grew increasingly alarmed at the prospect of fracking operations inside town borders. So they formed the Dryden Resources Awareness Coalition (DRAC) to fight off the frackers. They began collecting signatures on a petition asking the town board to take a stand against fracking the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which lies underneath the town of 14,000 as well as large portions of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.
Over the next few months, DRAC members took up chunks of the alloted “citizen’s privilege” time at the beginning of meeting after meeting of the town board, demanding anti-fracking action. Around town, they passed out anti-fracking petitions and conducted multiple outreach efforts. Soon, fracking opponents in Dryden outnumbered supporters three to one, according to Earthjustice.
“The case would never have gotten off the ground at all without community action,” says Deborah Goldberg, an Earthjustice lawyer who worked with DRAC members.
In 2011, the Town Board approved a zoning-law change that prohibited use of land within the town for oil and gas development, including fracking—in a unanimous, bipartisan vote.
The fracking industry didn’t back down. Just six weeks later, the Anschutz Exploration Corporation sued Dryden in September of that year to get it to open up to fracking.The case made it to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2014 in favor of Dryden’s right to zone out fracking operations. It went through two more legal challenges, ultimately resulting in the NY Court of Appeals upholding the decision.
“Heavy industry has never been allowed in our small farming town, and three years ago, we decided that fracking was no exception,” said Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner on the day the town won its final court verdict. “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California, and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”
The decision gave legal backing to more than 170 state municipalities that had also passed anti-fracking laws at the time, and gave a green light to several more that had been waiting on the Dryden decision to pass their own fracking bans, according to Goldberg.
“Dryden did it right from beginning to end,” she says. “They did their homework, recognized the problem, and pushed the town board for zoning limits that could stand up to legal challenge. They also showed up in court. ... The judges could see real people behind esoteric legal issues.”
Thomas S. West, a lawyer for Norse Energy Corp., which was involved in the Dryden appeals, told the New York Times that the decision could have far-reaching effects: In the future, he said, companies will have to weigh whether to invest “the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars required to develop the resource, only to be at risk of a municipal ban.”
No doubt such community actions will make those companies think twice about investing in fracking, says Todd Larsen, Green America’s executive co-director: “So many communities have been tricked into giving up their rights and their future, and have had their water, their air, and their lives destroyed by fracking. All communities need to reject the false promises of fracking companies and create a real energy future through renewables and energy efficiency.”
EarthJustice’s Unfracktured campaign has a number of resources for communities, including legal advice.
The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a free online guide for communities and policymakers facing
decisions about fracking.