When it comes to energy, Americans have an amazing knack for jumping out of the frying pan into the fire; and stoking the flames while we're at it — especially in the South.
Such is the case with fracking for natural gas, the biggest underground get-rich-quick scheme to come to the Appalachians since coal.
Fracking, more formally called hydraulic fracturing, is a method of mining natural gas by injecting chemicals, water and nitrous oxide into shale, causing it to fracture and release trapped gas.
The country is clamoring for less dependence on foreign oil, and demand is up for natural gas because it's cheaper, at least temporarily. Add to that the fact that the hottest new shale field is sitting just below our mountains, and it puts East Tennessee, North Georgia and Northeast Alabama right into the fireplace.
But natural gas — at least where fracking is concerned — is not the panacea its proponents would have us believe. Especially not in the south and especially not in Tennessee where lax environmental rules seem to be becoming more lax all the time.
This region — with Chattanooga nearly at dead center — sits atop a layer, or "play" in driller language, of shale known as Chattanooga Shale.
The debate over fracking is not simple: either for the safety of water, air and the climate, or for the nation's overall energy independence.
Early this year, the University of Tennessee brought the debate front and center with a controversial request to seek drilling bids for UT's 8,636-acre Cumberland Forest, which is public property.
The Tennessee Building Commission OKed the request, prompting environmental advocates to fear a new open season on public parks and other taxpayer owned lands.
"There was extensive interest in this area by multiple state agencies such as the Department of Environment and Conservation, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Department of Correction, etc. All of the agencies were supportive of our initiative and would like to potentially do something similar to that which we propose," wrote one UT official.
There are health-related environmental concerns about fracking, too.
In Pennsylvania, communities tell horror stories of having so much methane in their wells and water supplies that they become flammable. And in 2011, a series of EPA tests and reports confirmed the presence of carcinogens from the fracking fluid — which drillers don't have to report until after they've injected it into the ground -- in the public water supply at Pavillion, Wyoming.
Residents were urged not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes while showering to prevent explosions from released methane gas.
EPA investigators drilled two water monitoring wells to 1,000 feet. Water quality data from the test wells confirmed high levels of carcinogenic chemicals, such as benzene (a constituent of diesel fuel, used in the fracking fluid, as well as a chemical called 2 Butoxyethanol, known to be used in fracking fluid).
Wyoming lawmakers became the first to require drillers to disclose what they injected, but since the regulations were adopted, the state's enforcement has approved more than 50 "trade secret" requests, shielding identifying information for more than 190 different chemicals that are being used by Halliburton and other oil and gas service companies in fracking.
The Tennessee Joint Government Operations Committee last week approved new fracking rules that were drafted by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Yes, the same agency that oversees state parks. The new rules will go into effect June 18.
Those rules in affect offer no rules. They don't even require drillers to test wells or notify neighbors unless they pump in more than 200,000 gallons of water, and in East Tennessee's Chattanooga shale play, the geology is so fragile that normally less water than 200,000 gallons will be used per well. Nitrogen gas laced with chemicals will be used instead.
There are other dangers: The methane gas that escapes the wells contributes to the greenhouse effect of global warming. So while natural gas does burn cleaner than coal, methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse or heat-trapping gas.
Earthquakes also have been linked to fracking, both in Ohio and Arkansas.
And don't think federal regulations will help much. In 2005, Congress approved legislation that exempts fracking from provisions of the Safe Water Drinking Act and the Clean Air Act. This exemption has been dubbed the "Halliburton Loophole."
And then there's the question of Chattanooga Shale itself, which forms dangerous water-polluting radon when exposed on a roadside and cancer-causing airborne radon in a basement. In New York, environmental advocates say recovered, waste fracking fluid — a fraction of what is pumped into the earth -- contained levels of radioactive radium and other elements 100 to 1,000 times higher than federal drinking water standards.
Perhaps worst of all: The rush to frack for natural gas — another fossil fuel — likely will delay needed research and investment in truly clean energies.
Everyone wants clean, safe water and air, and most everyone seems interested in America's energy independence.
So far, no one has found consensus for ensuring both.
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