Pace Perspectives: Hydrofracking

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center at Pace Law School, where he also teaches energy and climate change law. Read why he believes we should focus more on climate change and less on fracking.

By Franz Litz

Climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge humankind has ever faced. Unabated, global warming pollution threatens human health, entire ecosystems, and large land areas inhabited by hundreds of millions of people. Averting the worst impacts of climate change means we must reduce our reliance on high-carbon fuels like coal and oil and over time move to a near zero-carbon economy by mid-century.

It won’t be easy. And it will take focus. We must become more energy efficient and begin investing more aggressively in renewable energy now. On the way to a cleaner, greener economy, we will have to continue to make hard choices about how we produce electricity, propel our vehicles, and heat our homes. Until we reach that sustainable energy future, saying “no” to one fuel means saying yes to some combination of the other available fuels.

Opponents of fracking seem to be missing this bigger picture—it is not that their environmental and health concerns have no merit, but that even valid concerns must be evaluated in the context of our larger climate change and energy realities.

Hydraulic fracturing uses large quantities of water mixed with chemicals. Cases of groundwater contamination have been tied to both fracking and conventional natural gas wells drilled in an atmosphere of lax or non-existent regulation. As a native of New York’s Adirondacks, I do not relish the thought of industrial drilling rigs dotting the landscape of the Catskill Mountains region or the rolling hills of New York’s southern tier.

On the other hand, environmentalists in the Northeast have worked tirelessly for decades to lessen the impact of coal plants upwind. Those coal plants spew toxic mercury, acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide, and smog-causing nitrogen oxides that cause serious health problems. And then there are the impacts of coal mining itself—impacts that are well documented and severe.

What do the dangers of coal have to do with the dangers of natural gas? Increased natural gas supplies have made natural gas the least-cost fuel for electricity generation in the United States. By most credible estimates, natural gas power plants emit half the global warming pollution of coal plants per unit of power produced, and natural gas presents almost none of the other air pollution problems of coal.

If we replace one-third of the existing coal-burning power generation with natural gas—a realistic goal—we’d reduce U.S. global warming pollution by at least 5%. If we could replace one-third of the transportation fleet currently burning oil-derived fuels with natural gas vehicles, we could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by another 5%.

Because the environmental risks associated with fracking are real, we must work to put the right regulations in place to ensure fracking is as safe as possible. We also need adequate regulatory oversight to ensure the gas industry is complying with those regulations. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens have halted fracking in New York until these safeguards are in place. This is precisely the kind of reasonable approach to fracking that we need.

Why am I a fan of cheap natural gas? Abundant natural gas will do what most politicians have been unwilling to do—significantly reduce global warming pollution by displacing dirty coal plants. And while the energy markets work their magic, we need to continue to drive energy efficiency and renewable energy. Ultimately, though, tackling climate change and creating a sustainable energy future will require politicians in Washington that understand the need for action. If we are to make them understand, we need to focus more on climate change, and less on fracking.

Want to know more about fracking? Join members of the Pace Community on April 9 for a multi-campus discussion on the controversies surrounding hydrofracking in New York. Please RSVP online at www.pace.edu/paaes/events.

Pace Perspectives: Hydrofracking

Dyson College’s Claudia Mausner, PhD, an adjunct professor in the Environmental Studies Program, discusses the importance of empowering Pace students to be agents of change when dealing with energy issues and hydrofracking in particular.

By Claudia Mausner, PhD

I bring a social science perspective to this subject, examining people’s attitudes and behaviors. My goal is to help students understand the underlying issues related to sustainability or “going green,” and how environmental problems are related to culture, economics, politics, and communications, as well as the behavioral and social sciences. Teaching both environmental and non-environmental majors, I strive to pique student interest by emphasizing the relevance of sustainability to students’ daily lives both in school and at home; I help students recognize the many ways they can make a difference despite their youth and status as college students. At times students seem discouraged by what they perceive as lack of external support for environmental action, and lack sufficient motivation or ability to counteract this perception with confidence in their own power to create change.

When introducing the topic of energy in my classes, we typically focus on cultural and historic attitudes toward nature-as-resource as well as issues of climate change. I introduce the subject of renewable energy—solar, hydro, wind, geothermal—along with a discussion of nonrenewable energy from fossil fuels, including hydrofracking for natural gas. We also review the role of nuclear power, although I openly acknowledge my concerns about this technology despite its advantage in addressing the problem of carbon emissions vis-à-vis climate change.

I am a realist regarding use of non-renewable energy in today’s world, as transition to more sustainable energies will take time. It is essential that students have the library skills required for finding relevant information about these complex subjects; they must know how to evaluate reliability of their sources and use critical thinking skills to make responsible decisions with the vast amount of information available. My objective in the classroom is to create an atmosphere which invites open exchange of ideas, attitudes, and concerns, as well as sharing of knowledge. We examine how our own behavior contributes to the problem—such as driving from dorm to classroom on the Pleasantville Campus—and consider what sacrifices we might be willing to make to increase our own energy efficient behavior and conservation strategies.

Several years ago I used a textbook called Planet U for my Sustainable Living course. In this text the author emphasized the university’s broad responsibility for what he termed “sustaining the world.” It is typically assumed that universities will conduct scientific research to address energy problems. Research has been and will continue to be conducted across a wide spectrum of disciplines, contributing to progress in development of energy-saving technologies; improving renewable energy technologies (think car batteries); designing technologies to reduce emissions from existing power plants; analyzing the ecological impact of oil spills in order to improve clean-up efforts; and so on. But as large institutions that use energy themselves, universities can and should serve as engines of change by shifting their own energy consumption patterns. Pace, of course, is no exception.

Universities such as Pace are major employers with hundreds of commuters; they design, construct, and operate buildings that consume power; their endowments invest in numerous energy-related businesses; and both food and supplies purchased by the University have energy footprints as well. My students have examined sustainability practices at Pace with the College Sustainability Report Card http://www.greenreportcard.org/ and, as of last year, the STARS program https://stars.aashe.org/.  They reviewed pages on Pace’s website which describe the University’s sustainability efforts, and made recommendations for keeping students well-informed and fostering increased participation in environmental activities both on and off campus.

I first became aware of hydrofracking in early 2011 with the release of the movie Gasland. As a member of Tarrytown’s Environmental Advisory Council I helped arrange a showing of the movie at our public library, and was delighted when Pace Law Professor Nicholas A. Robinson was in the audience and contributed his in-depth knowledge of the subject during our follow-up conversation with community members. Later that year I was invited by Tracy Basile, a colleague in Pace’s Environmental Studies program, to work on an Earth Day hydrofracking program featuring her film The Unfractured Future. This month I look forward to participating in the Fracking Forum sponsored by Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, hosted for both NYC and Pleasantville students through videoconferencing. The Fracking Forum has been specifically designed to inform students, staff, and faculty about this critical issue from diverse perspectives, and to encourage active engagement as the state of New York moves forward on this issue.

Given this essay is appearing in a University publication, it may be blasphemous to inform readers that decades of social science research have proven that knowledge alone is not sufficient to change environmental behavior. Ultimately, what we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels—whether oil, coal or natural gas—is to change both attitudes and behavior. But knowledge is certainly an excellent starting point, especially for those already committed to creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable world. Working together across departments, programs, and schools at Pace, I believe there is enormous potential to harness the passion, skills, knowledge, and talents of myriad students, faculty, and staff to make a difference solving intractable energy problems including those associated with hydrofracking, which is arguably the most important environmental issue to confront New Yorkers this decade.

Want to know more about fracking? Join members of the Pace Community on April 9 for a multi-campus discussion on the controversies surrounding hydrofracking in New York. Please RSVP online at www.pace.edu/paaes/events.

Pace Perspectives: Hydrofracking

Dean Emeritus of Pace Law School Richard L. Ottinger is the co-director for the Center for Environmental Legal Studies and founder of the Pace Energy and Climate Center. Read his views on the regulatory issues around fracking.

By Richard L. Ottinger

Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations to access natural gas supplies heretofore unable to be harvested economically creates a vast potential domestic energy resource for areas with appropriate shale resources.

The process has serious environmental problems, however, that need to be resolved and vigorously regulated to avoid overtaxing and contaminating drinking water supplies, dangerous air pollution, earthquakes, assure reimbursement for any accidents or damages to affected properties, and to assure minimization of the release of greenhouse gasses.

The fracking process involves drilling into the shale deposits and forcing more than a million gallons of water, sand, and chemicals per well through cement pipes into the shale to release the embedded gasses. The chemical-infused wastewater is returned, often with radioactive materials that occur in the shale, and it has to be stored or reprocessed in a manner to prevent leakage into aquifers and reservoirs used for drinking water. Hundreds of trucks bring in water and transport the waste water to disposal sites, often spilling waste water and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

There now are hundreds of wells in the U.S. that were improperly plugged after the wells were abandoned resulting in serious leakage of waste water, toxic chemicals and radioactive materials into drinking water supplies. Some fracking companies failed to use adequate qualities of cement in the drilling pipes resulting in leakages both of contaminated water and methane gases that are powerful greenhouse gas contributors. There have been incidents of methane fires and explosions. Fracking companies have refused to disclose the identity and concentrations of chemicals they use in the fracking process claiming that the information is proprietary. Contaminated wastewater has been delivered to POTW facilities that lacked the capability of processing the chemical and radioactive wastes.

In Pennsylvania, there were serious incidents of water contamination resulting in illnesses and deaths, adjacent property values plummeted, and the banks no longer will give or extend mortgages to property owners in the vicinity of fracking projects. Affected property owners were not properly reimbursed.

Regulation of fracking operations to prevent harm to public health and the environment has been abysmal. At the federal level, the Energy Policy Act of 2005[i], orchestrated by Vice President Cheney and signed by President George W. Bush, exempted fracking from most of the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and restricted application of NEPA and other environmental statutes.  State regulations have been insipid and poorly enforced. The DGEIS prepared by the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York was seriously deficient, and the Riverkeeper, NRDC and other environmental organizations, and the US EPA have submitted extensive comments detailing the deficiencies.

The principal regulations required to assure protection of public health and the environment include:

  • Fracking must be prohibited in the vicinity of major drinking water supplies, in areas on seismic faults and in areas with drinking water shortages.
  • The specifications for pipeline construction and wastewater repositories must be strict to the point of preventing leakage of chemical and radioactive materials and methane under all foreseeable contingencies.
  • The chemicals used in fracking must be fully disclosed, at least to the regulatory authorities.
  • Wastewater must not be sent to POTW plants that lack the ability to remove toxic and radioactive materials.
  • Specifications for trucks that transport wastewater must require adequate protection against leakage in the event of accidents or driver negligence. Drivers must be adequately trained in the safe handling of these materials.
  • Procedures must be required to handle all foreseeable accidents, and equipment necessary to handle such events must be available at each fracking site.
  • The exemption of fracking operations from federal environmental laws must be repealed.
  • Regulations must be strictly enforced, adequate numbers of enforcers must be hired and adequately trained, and penalties for failure to abide by regulations must be severe.
  • There should be strict liability for damages caused by fracking operations, and a fund or insurance should be required to compensate all persons and communities that suffer damages resulting from fracking.
  • Assistance should be provided to developing countries to enable them to adopt and enforce these regulatory measures.
  • These measures should be paid for by a tax on the revenues from fracking operations.

If these measures are adopted and enforced, then natural gas from fracking could be a useful transition fuel while energy efficiency and renewable energy measures are adopted and adequate transmission systems are constructed.

Natural gas still is a greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel; the necessity for replacing all fossil fuels, including natural gas, with non-carbon alternatives still should be the world’s energy priority.


[i] 42 U.S.C. § 300h(d)(1) (2006).

Want to know more about fracking? Join members of the Pace Community on April 9 for a multi-campus discussion on the controversies surrounding hydrofracking in New York. Please RSVP online at www.pace.edu/paaes/events.

Pace Perspectives: Hydrofracking

Environmental Science student Diane Saraiva ’12 offers a student perspective on hydrofracking, the damage it causes, and the possibility of greener alternatives.

By Diane Saraiva ’12

It seems that the latest domestic craze in energy is hydraulic fracturing. The gas industry can certainly make this energy option seem like a perfect fix and solution to several aspects of our energy crisis. Natural gas is promoted as an alternative to coal and oil, and can be extracted domestically, eventually reducing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. With full exploitation of this energy source, a huge industry would be developed, one that could rival the enormity of that of coal and oil. This would create countless and much needed jobs. However, there has been a great debate over whether these benefits outweigh the dangers of the processes of hydraulic fracturing.

The production, transport, and actual burning of natural gas can create huge water, air, and health problems. It has been estimated that the operation of a single well can use between 2,370,000 and 7,700,000 gallons of water. This is especially alarming because water scarcity has the potential to become an even bigger issue than energy consumption in the coming years.

Drinking water in areas of gas production is also severely at risk of being polluted by hydraulic fracturing processes.  It has been estimated that as much as 30% of fracturing fluids remain underground, allowing for upward leeching into the groundwater from which people are obtaining drinking water. Dangerous chemicals often make up a small percentage of the fracturing fluids. However, many of these chemicals have been classified as toxic and carcinogenic.

Gas industries are benefiting greatly from the relaxed government regulation and exemptions from laws that exist to protect our drinking water supplies and the integrity of water quality. Any real attempts that have been made by lawmakers to increase regulation of natural gas production processes have stirred up an uproar with the gas company’s powerful defenders. The gas industry’s immense influence in Washington is due to the consolidation of the gas industry with some of the largest oil companies.

Horror stories keep emerging from all around the country as natural gas drilling is becoming more and more common. There are countless issues related to hydraulic fracturing, including the hazards to the surrounding land and water sources where wastes are dumped, inadequate treatments to wastewater and sludge, methane pollution to the degree that allows people to set their faucets on fire, and direct effects of drilling, like noise and foul smells, communities are exposed to. Many homeowners that lease their properties to gas companies are financially struggling and are lured in because of the prospect of financial compensation. Often, what homeowners are left with are polluted wells, health issues, and an overall disrupted and polluted community. We have to consider all the potential effects the application of this technology could cause. Truth is that the long term effects of hydraulic fracturing are not known from experiences from the past few years. The methods of exploration of hydraulic fracturing can be considered nothing short of irresponsible and must be mended if natural gas production is to become as ‘clean’ as it is promoted to be.

Want to know more about fracking? Join members of the Pace Community on April 9 for a multi-campus discussion on the controversies surrounding hydrofracking in New York. Please RSVP online at www.pace.edu/paaes/events.