“Newswatch In-Depth: Fracking Frenzy” Looks At Environmental Downsides And Economic Benefits

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The controversial issue of fracking was tackled by WOUB on the February 28 airing of “Newswatch In-Depth: Fracking Frenzy.” The live, 90-minute program allowed viewers to call, email or tweet in questions on one of the region's more prevalent and divisive issues.

Moderated by Tim Sharp of WOUB News and Terry Smith of the Athens News, the debate featured experts on all sides of the fracking issue. Terry Fleming and Dr. Robert W. Chase are both in favor of hydraulic fracturing, while Dr. Natalie Kruse and Dr. Bernhard Debatin represented the environmental questions and concerns.

Fleming is the executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council and has served in that position since 1986. Dr. Chase has B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering from Penn State and is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College.

Dr. Kruse is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies in the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University. She holds a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering and Geosciences from Newcastle University, and a B.C. in Civil Engineering with a minor in Geological Sciences from Ohio University. Dr. Debatin is professor at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and director of the journalism honors tutorial program. Dr. Debatin represents a citizen’s group, “Slow Down Fracking in Athens County.”

Hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) is a water-intensive industrial process that drillers use to collect the natural gas held in shale formations thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface. Fracking fluid, containing water, salt, sand and chemicals, is injected at high pressures into these geologic formations. The salty water, sand and chemical mixture forces natural gas up through fracking wells for collection through pipelines. Fracking in the region could mean millions of dollars to landowners and thousands of jobs to an area hit hard by the recent recession, but environmentalists wonder how it might affect the ground water and question whether the economic impact is worth the possible cost to the land.

“It’s one of the best things to happen to the state of Ohio, maybe ever. It’s happening in a part of the state that needs it most, that’s in a state of despair,” said Fleming. “The jobs that are going to be created as a result of this are going to be a real economic boom to the part of the state that is long overdue.”

Chase echoed the same support of the process and noted how important it is to energy production and development. “It’s essential. We cannot get oil and gas out of rocks anywhere in Ohio without fracturing the rocks,” said Chase. “For the last 50 or 60 years we’ve been using hydraulic fracturing.”

Some of those against the issue, however, feel that the economic importance is being exaggerated.

“(Fracking is) essential only if we do not change our energy technologies,” said Debatin. “Fracking as a practice is very dangerous and a short-lived activity. The jobs that are created are short-lived and are often jobs that are not going to the local people and are often going to out of state people. And in the end, a very beautiful area that we have here is transformed into an industrial area.”

There is also the issue of environmental impact, which many against fracking fear is being skipped over and ignored.

“(There are) environmental and health risks, and by glossing over them, we’re doing (this area) a disservice,” said Kruse. “There is a risk to water contamination. There is a threat to fresh clean water, which is a staple to a lot of industries in this area.”

Tied to the concern of contamination to drinking water wells is the question over what chemicals are being used in fracking fluids.

“It’s mandatory when a company fracks oil that they have to turn in a frack report,” said Chase. “The companies are now posting that on a website, and the public can go to that and see exactly what (chemicals) are being used in (frack water).”

“The problem is that there is no regulatory oversight,” responded Debatin. “Everything is pushed on to the state. Ohio has, in my opinion, a very lax way of dealing with it. The chemicals do not have to be disclosed ahead of time. There is no mandatory water testing.”

Fleming and Chase remained adamant throughout the discussion how necessary and beneficial fracking is to Ohio, particularly the southeast region. And while they admitted that it was not a perfect or faultless process, they stressed that the potential benefits far outweighed the contrary.

“The chances of me getting in my automobile and getting into an accident are far higher than any risks we face with (fracking),” said Fleming.

The counter from Kruse and Debatin focused on the fact that risks with fracking are consistently downplayed in the damage they pose to the environment and embellished in relation to economic advantages. Debatin argued that we, as a public, are not being properly informed on the whole issue.

“There is sort of a semantic trick going on,” said Debatin. “The industry likes to define fracking as the tiny little event happening 7,000 feet underground. That’s like a little boy getting beaten up on the playground every day, and the doctor looking at the nosebleed and saying you must have bad veins in your nose. We are not looking at the overall issue.”

For more information on the issue of hydraulic fracturing and to watch an archive video copy of the entire program, check out our special coverage page on fracking here.