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The Boom And Bust Of Fracking


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, those apps you've been downloading to keep the kids occupied during car rides and sports practices? It turns out, according to federal regulators, they are collecting all kinds of information that they aren't telling you about. So we will. In a few minutes.

But we want to start with a hot button issue that touches on the economy and environment. You may have heard about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That's a technology to extract natural gas that's causing alarm among a growing number of activists. You might have heard about it if, for no other reason, that many high profile celebrities that gotten involved in trying to stop it.

Critics of fracking, including major environmental group, say it's poisoning ground water and creating enormous amounts of toxic waste. Vermont banned fracking and New York state is deciding whether to allow it. But supporters of fracking say it not only creates jobs, it's also an important piece in the U.S. growing more energy-independent.

Reporter Scott Detrow saw that dilemma firsthand when he visited Towanda, Pennsylvania. He documented how fracking has changed that town in the new series "Boomtown" from StateImpact Pennsylvania. That's a partnership between NPR and member stations. And Scott Detrow joins us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SCOTT DETROW: Hey, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is NPR's Jeff Brady. He covers the energy industry. Jeff, thanks to you also for joining us.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Well, thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: And I also want to mention that if you have thoughts on fracking you can join StateImpact's conversation on Twitter at #nprboomtown. Jeff Brady, I'm going to start with you because I'd like to ask you why are we hearing so much about this technology now and talk a little bit more about it, if you would.

BRADY: Sure. You know, hydraulic fracturing has really changed the experience of living in a place where companies drill for natural gas. In the old days, a driller would come along and just punch a hole in the ground. They would drill down and over the next couple of decades the gas would leak out. And most of the time all that you saw above the ground was this valve kind of directing the gas to the nearest pipeline.

But now, to make these wells much more productive and profitable, drillers bring in a lot more equipment. They not only drill down vertically, but they also go out horizontally. And we're talking long distances, more than a mile in many cases. And then they pump truckloads of water along with some sand and often chemicals to break up the tight rocks deep underground. And that allows the gas to escape, which is what makes the wells a lot more productive.

The good news is this has boosted natural gas production in the U.S. and it's keeping prices very low for those of us who use gas in our homes. And also for utilities that use it to generate electricity.

MARTIN: So are the fears about fracking, about the quality of life issues that you just talked about? I mean, the fact is that equipment has to get where it gets some kind of way. Or is just that the process itself - is there a fear? And is there anything to support the fear that this will also cause long-lasting environmental damage?

BRADY: Yeah. You know, that's part of the problem here. And I've been covering this for over a decade. And we know a lot more about hydraulic fracturing than when I started, but there's still a lot that is not known about how fracking affects the environment. There's plenty of research underway. In coming years we're going to learn more about how pumping all of this chemical-laced water underground affects drinking water and whether it's contributing to minor earthquakes that some communities are experiencing.

There's also the issue of where all of this nasty fracking water is going to be disposed that a lot of communities are grappling with. And then there are all kinds of questions about air pollution created by these really intensive drilling operations.

So, you know, and even beyond the scientific issues there are cultural issues too. This type of drilling is turning sleepy, rural communities into industrial zones and that's really hard to live with.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there's both sides of that. And Scott Detrow, you've reported on both sides of that. I'll just start with a short clip from your reporting in Towanda, Pennsylvania. This is Randy Epler. He's life-long resident of the area and the city's police chief and this is what he told you.

RANDY EPLER: The gas industry has brought lots of jobs to the area and there'll be jobs long after the boom has left and the Norman Rockwell painting went bye-bye and we're at 2013 right with everybody else.

MARTIN: Scott, as near as you can tell, what point of view is the prevailing one in that area?

DETROW: There is absolutely no question that natural gas drilling has had a major economic impact on Towanda and the area around it. This is an area where unemployment was over 10 percent as late as 2009. But when you chart it out you just see a steep, steep, steep decline in unemployment in the Towanda area over the last few years. It's hovered between five and six percent throughout the entire recession and slow recovery.

So absolutely, you go to every single store on Main Street in Towanda and talk to them and they say business has been up. They have had more sales. They've seen a lot of ancillary benefits to this industry coming into their town. But with that comes growing pains. And this was a very sleepy town, a very rural town and all of a sudden you have trucks hauling machinery through. You have trucks hauling water through, fracking chemicals through, and there are traffic jams the likes of which you would see in downtown Washington D.C. sometimes. You know, traffic backed up for miles at times in Towanda. And the cost of living has just shot up as well and apartments that were going for around $300 a month now go for as much as $1,000 or more.

So that has implications. People can't afford the houses and apartments they've lived in for years. They've seen an increase in homelessness in Towanda because of this. So a very mixed bag. And depending on what area you focus on, it's a really great thing. In other areas it's a really bad thing. But everyone can agree no matter whether for it or against it, it has certainly changed life in the town.

MARTIN: We're talking about fracking with Scott Detrow of StateImpact Pennsylvania and NPR's Jeff Brady. He covers energy issues. Scott, so are the quality of life issues paramount among the critics? Or there are also people who were worried that this kind of economic advance is coming at a cost to their health. Is that something that people are talking about...


MARTIN: ...in the areas that are directly affected?

DETROW: When you talk about what the interest groups and the environmental groups and the activists talk about, the environmental issues are always top billing. And I did a lot of reporting on environmental and health problems in the area of Towanda over the last year. There were two high profile incidents where, because of problems or unexpected issues during the drilling process, methane gas was leaking into private water wells.

One person took me to a spot on his property and held a jar over a bubbling brook. And then he lit it on fire. So that's certainly a real concern. But what's interesting to me is when you talk to the people who live there, unless you're someone who has had your water well impacted, then that's certainly the top issue that comes to mind for you.

When you ask what's different now than a few years ago? What's your main concern about drilling? It's not I'm concerned about drinking water. It's there are so many trucks on my roads it drives me nuts. It's the quality of life issues and the communal change that really springs up first. That's not to say the other issues aren't there and important but every single person we talked to trucks was number one and rent was probably number two or three.

MARTIN: Jeff Brady, we mentioned that Vermont has banned fracking and New York state is grappling with it now. So you've got states who are directly addressing this on their own. Has the federal government said anything about this or weighed in on this? Or offered any policies on this or even research on this?

BRADY: Yeah. The federal government has been involved but states certainly are the primary regulators. The EPA is kind of looking over everybody's shoulders and developing - it's also looking at this issue. But states are the primary regulators. And so you have New York state right now developing regulations for hydraulic fracturing and that process is currently underway. Frankly, I would have thought it was finished by now, but it's very controversial and so they're still working on those regulations. They just put them out a couple of days ago and they have a comment period right now.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation in New York is collecting comments through January 11th and then there's also - the New York's Health Commissioner is conducting an assessment of health risks related to fracking and so everybody's waiting for that. That could take another couple of months.

At this point, it looks like the state may be ready to make a decision on whether to allow fracking by the end of February, what those regulations are going to look like. You know, but this just hasn't been a smooth process so far and I'm not going to be shocked if it takes longer than that.

MARTIN: Jeff, briefly - and I want to get a final word from Scott, as well - just briefly, where do you think this debate is going, Jeff?

BRADY: You know, it really is about environment versus economics and there are a lot of communities who would really like to have this kind of economic activity. I've been to a lot of boom towns and it's like a carnival. There's just money flowing everywhere.

But there are a lot of effects and it's really hard to live in those places. A lot of people chose to live in rural communities because they want a peaceful lifestyle and this kind of activity, this kind of natural gas drilling as opposed to what we were seeing a decade ago or two decades ago just really is not compatible with a nice, calm rural lifestyle

MARTIN: Interesting. Scott, a final word from you, if we can. What kind of reaction are you getting to your series as the same kind of debate over jobs versus the environment playing out on the common pages, too? What are you hearing?

DETROW: I think that's a pattern that plays itself out. No matter what issue we talk about, no matter what issue we cover and no matter how focused we are on one specific portion of natural gas drilling and its side effects, the conversation always comes back to the broad economics versus environment issue and the stakes are insanely high on both sides. This is a process that's creating an energy revolution in the United States. There's no question about it and it's an exponential increase in the amount of natural gas and it's put new life into oil fields, too.

And, at the same time, there are major, major concerns because there's nothing more important in the world than your water supply.

MARTIN: Scott Detrow is a reporter for StateImpact Pennsylvania. That's a partnership between NPR and member stations. He was with us from WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Jeff Brady is a reporter on NPR's national desk. He joined us from his office in Philadelphia.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

BRADY: Oh, thank you.

DETROW: All right. Thank you.

MARTIN: And, remember, you can join StateImpact's conversation on Twitter using hash tag #NPR Boomtown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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