Fracking public land has obvious downside: Cumberland forest plan is worrisome

Fracking public land has obvious downside: Cumberland forest plan is worrisome

April 4th, 2013 in Opinion Times

No matter how much state officials try to prettify their decision to lease the 8,600-acre UT-owned Cumberland Forest for fracking for natural gas, their lame excuses for pillaging and profiteering from a public asset fall apart.

They can't assure that this wonderful 13-square mile piece of state property will continue to be a pristine asset for future generations of Tennesseans once the roads, trucks and mining infrastructure over-runs the forest, and once the mining spews slag heaps, gas flaring and toxic waste water ponds that wreck the landscape and taint air and water quality.

They can't assure that a web of horizontal hydraulic fracturing of the deeply buried shale rock formations will not release harmful toxic chemicals into the area's subsurface water. Nor can they promise that methane gas, radon and radioactive elements will not escape to the air from the fractured rock and leaking mining boreholes.

They can't support their promise that the mining may produce "model practices" for such mining, as some state officials suggested last month in granting the University of Tennessee a precedent-setting permit to mine the public land. After all, the state's current mining laws for fracking do not even meet the weak American Petroleum Industry's own best-practice standards, and no state agency has been trying to change them.

In fact, it seems unlikely now that UT and the state Building Commission, which granted UT the permit to lease the Cumberland Forest for fracking for up to 20 years, would even try to require fracking companies to meet higher mining standards.

This is, after all, an industry that the prior presidential administration exempted from disclosing the specific toxic chemicals that are used in fracking formulas. The chemicals are mixed with sand and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and injected in horizontal bore holes under high pressure to fracture shale rock formations in order to release natural gas, mainly methane.

Environmental experts have long advocated strict standards and more disclosure for fracking operations, but mining lobbyists so far have managed to defeat closer scrutiny. That imbalance prompted a new coalition of research scientists from several prominent universities -- including the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina -- to initiate a major research project on the effects of fracking in January. They will investigate reports of various human ills from fracking -- i.e., breathing difficulties, nausea, headaches, excessive fatigue, rashes and other effects -- and the toxicity of the water and chemical flowback from wells.

Citing the unusual effects in farming areas after fracking began, other critics want before-and-after analysis of the effects of fracking on water quality, milk and diseases in cattle and other farm animals, crops, plants, pasture lands and wildlife. And many await the findings of a belated comprehensive environmental impact assessment of fracking by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Given these concerns, one would think leaders at the University of Tennessee would have initiated a broad academic study of the effects of fracking before rushing for a plan to lease the land for fracking.

In fact, the background of the plan is suspicious on its face. The state's commissioner of finance, Mark Emkes, told the Building Commission Board prior to its March approval of the UT lease plan that he wanted a conference before the university enters a bid process for the lease, in part to address a controversy over whether a similar 2008 plan led to a bid proposal designed with a particular company in mind. Taken with the current national controversy over the efficacy of fracking generally, that stunning admission ought to persuade UT officials to back away from any fracking bid until the findings of larger studies are fully debated.

In any case, the state needs first to establish guidelines as to whether, or when, it is feasible and in the state's long-term best interest to initiative fracking on the state's public land. Once begun, where would that stop? And what would be the value of public state land lost to the negative consequences of fracking.