Fracking a costly legal issue

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a controversial practice where energy companies drill deep into the earth and then blast millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shafts to free trapped oil and gas. Fracking has the potential to supply energy, but also has some serious side effects.

Some of the damage includes water contamination through surface spills and waste water leaking into aquifers through porous rock, lost property values and dangerous levels of toxic air pollution near fracking sites. There are also complaints about the noise from all of the heavy equipment needed to operate the drilling operation.

Another problem is the millions of gallons of water used in fracking operations not only deplete state and local water resources, but end up as huge amounts of contaminated wastewater that have to be dealt with.

Several communities have tried to fight back. Yellow Springs was the first town in Ohio to enact local legislation to ban shale gas drilling and fracking. This local law argues for the fundamental rights of residents to clean air and water, and to prohibit fracking within city limits.

Since then, several other Ohio communities have voted to enact s similar ban. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, Athens residents voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking and related oil and gas activity. Similar measures have passed in Broadview Heights, Mansfield and Oberlin. A group in Columbus is advocating for a similar bill to be placed on a future ballot. Other communities in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and New Mexico have also taken a stand against fracking.

Unfortunately, there is an aggressive response to these citizen-led drilling bans by energy companies and industry groups. They are forcing local governments into expensive legal efforts to defend the measures.

In a recent article in the New York Times article, the city of Longmont in northern Colorado was featured as an example of a city that voted (two years ago) to ban hydraulic fracturing from their open spaces and a snow-fed reservoir where tourists and locals fish, and some of the drinking water comes from. Longmont is facing an expensive court challenge to their fracking ban.

The energy companies argue that they have a right to extract underground minerals, and state agencies, not individual communities, are the ones with the authority to set oil and gas rules. They also argue that fracking provides jobs, helps to finance local governments, and opens new economic opportunities in rural communities.

Citizens’ groups and environmental organizations say residents have the right to live without the fear of methane leaks from wellheads, polluted drinking water, and traffic and noise from the drilling rigs.

There is some potential compromise on the horizon. So far around 20 agreements between energy companies and communities across the state of Colorado seek to balance concerns about noise, traffic and other side effects of drilling with the right of property owners to tap their mineral resources.

This is a complex issue, but U.S. citizens have the right to debate the dangers and benefits of fracking without vast amounts of money being spent for lobbying by those who would make a quick buck from this controversial practice.

Rick Sheridan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communications at Wilberforce University.