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On the Environment

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
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Yale Law students ask California Governor Brown to halt fracking

By Guest Author, Hillary Aidun, YLS '17

Last month I delivered a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown when he visited Yale Law School. Signed by twenty-two members of the Yale Environmental Law Association, the letter asks Governor Brown to place an indefinite moratorium on the use of unconventional oil extraction techniques such as fracking.

Governor Brown has made climate change a policy priority, but development of shale oil threatens to undermine his state’s progress. According to the California Air Resources Board, much of the state’s oil is more carbon intensive than the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the most climate-threatening reserves on the planet. Depending on whom you ask, we need to leave either two-thirds or 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to restrict global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. We should at least stop extraction of the most climate-disrupting energy sources, such as California oil.

Climate change threatens California in a number of ways, including by exacerbating drought. But unconventional extraction also contributes to drought in the immediate term by wasting at least two million gallons of water every day. Governor Brown has vowed to place water “front and center” as his state suffers from a drought so severe that cities are restricting residents’ water usage. He could save Californians enormous amounts of water by halting fracking and similar methods. These water-intensive drilling techniques are especially harmful because they permanently remove precious water from California’s supply; the chemicals employed and produced during fracking are so toxic that wastewater cannot be reused for other purposes.

Because fracking involves carcinogenic pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde it poses enormous threats to human health and the environment through both air and water pollution. According to nationwide industry data, five percent of wells leak immediately, and more than half leak after 30 years. An investigation by the Associated Press has confirmed cases of water contamination in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. In Los Angeles and Orange Counties, oil companies used 45 million pounds of air toxic materials for fracking and similar techniques between June 2013 and July 2014 alone. These toxins included crystalline silica, a known carcinogen, and hydrofluoric acid, which can cause severe damage to the eyes, skin and lungs. Californians have reported other health impacts in areas where fracking has been taking place for years.

Because fracking wastewater cannot be reused, operators dispose of it through underground injection. Federal seismologists have linked this practice to earthquakes. In the last five years Oklahoma has endured 2500 earthquakes, which scientistsblame on wastewater injection. More than half of California’s wastewater injection wells are within ten miles of a recently active fault line. Needless to say, California does not need to amplify its seismic risk.

Our letter—like fracking in California—focuses on oil, but it is important to note that most fracking in the United States takes place in pursuit of natural gas. Many consider natural gas a relatively harmless fossil fuel because it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But natural gas’s primary ingredient, methane, is up to 105 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Studies have found that methane leakage rates can be as high as 10% — meaning that in many cases natural gas is even worse for the climate than coal. 

Pick your poison—fracking is extraordinarily dangerous for a number of reasons. That is why nearly 70% of Californians want a halt to all fracking, and communities around the state are moving forward to prohibit the practice or calling on the Governor to do the same. I hope that Governor Brown will take note of fracking’s threats, and lead the nation on this pivotal environmental and human health issue.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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