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Numbers support ban on fracking

Last year, when the U.S. Geological Survey announced the discovery of shale gas deposits beneath the Pioneer Valley, the debate over fracking — the controversial drilling practice — came to Massachusetts.

Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas and oil that combines two technologies: hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Fracking wells are pumped full of a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals at high pressure in order to get at oil and gas deposits locked beneath the earth’s surface.

Fracked wells consume large volumes of fresh water, and produce even larger volumes of wastewater laced with toxic and radioactive substances. And fracking transforms rural and natural landscapes into industrial zones, cleared of vegetation and crisscrossed by roads and pipelines. To make matters worse, fracking is exempt from some of our nation’s key environmental and public health laws.

The practice of fracking has expanded rapidly in the last decade, with over 82,000 wells drilled in the United States since 2005. And the result, in states like Pennsylvania, New Mexico and North Dakota, has been devastating.

Now that fracking could be coming to Massachusetts, we should ask ourselves: How much damage could fracking do to our state?

Last week, Environment Massachusetts released a new report, “Fracking by the Numbers,” bringing together available state-level data to quantify the damage that fracking has done across the country. For the first time, we can assign numbers to many of the national impacts of fracking.

The findings from our report are sobering:

∎ In 2012, fracking wells produced 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater — enough to submerge Washington, D.C. in a 22-foot-deep toxic lagoon.

∎ Fracking is responsible for 450,000 tons of air pollution in a year.

∎ Three hundred and sixty thousand acres of land have been directly damaged by fracking since 2005, fragmenting habitats and marring vistas for miles around.

The figures for individual states are no less staggering. In Pennsylvania last year, fracking produced 1.2 billion gallons of wastewater laced with toxic chemicals. In Texas, fracking released 7,800 tons of particulate matter and 100,000 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air.

The report’s message is clear: fracking is dirty and dangerous, it devastates our environment on a vast scale, and it does not belong in Massachusetts. If we want to protect clean air, clean water, and some of the most beautiful landscapes in the commonwealth, we should act now to ban fracking — before the drilling starts.

On Sept. 26, the Massachusetts Legislature held its first-ever hearing on fracking legislation. House Bill 788, introduced by Reps. Denise Provost and Peter Kocot, would ban fracking in Massachusetts.

Environment Massachusetts is working to raise the visibility of this issue and mobilize public support to ban fracking. Together with our allies, we delivered over 11,000 petition signatures to the state legislature in support of the fracking ban.

At the federal level, President Obama can do two things to limit the damage from fracking across the country. First, as the Bureau of Land management mulls weak rules for fracking on public lands, the president should insist on following a key recommendation of the administration’s advisory panel to keep “unique and/or sensitive areas ... off limits to drilling.” At a minimum, that means quashing the oil and gas industry’s bid to frack inside our national forests, on the doorsteps of our national parks, or in places that provide drinking water for millions of Americans.

Second, the president should call for an end to the loopholes that make fracking exempt from key provisions of our nation’s environmental laws.

In August, Americans submitted more than 1 million comments urging the Obama administration to take much stronger action to protect our environment and health from fracking.

As “Fracking by the Numbers” shows, fracking has polluted water, damaged rural landscapes, and emitted dangerous air pollution in vast quantities across the country. We know what’s at stake, and we need to act now to protect Massachusetts communities from the damage that fracking would bring.

Ben Hellerstein is a field associate with Environment Massachusetts, a statewide environmental advocacy organization working to protect clean air, clean water and open space. For more information, visit www.environmentmassachusetts.org.

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