Last week, I mildly mocked the efforts of the mobile phone industry to "self-regulate" the idiot practice of texting-while-driving. This prompted way more comments than I usually get, reminding me that anti-regulation -- an ideology long promulgated by the forces FDR once aptly labeled "Organized Money" -- has been so well marketed that we all have mixed feelings about how the government balances corporate libertarianism with the public interest. (See: 'Market Forces' Can't & Won't Protect Public Interest.)
However, there's still some federal oversight that almost everyone tolerates -- like the Food and Drug Administration's arduous drug approval regimen. After all, a bad drug, or an untested interaction between a new drug and old drugs, is pretty personal. It could kill you. We're reminded of the FDA's vigilance every time we turn on the TV and hear the phrase: "In case of an erection lasting more than four hours…"
Most people understand that a drug-approval process that's designed to minimize four-hour erections tends to be slow and costly, because it requires science. Everybody knows science is difficult, and it's almost never fast.
Which brings me to another example. The oil and gas industry is currently in a huge hurry to rush the science related to hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- an extractive process for natural gas in once-inaccessible shale fields. The reason for the hurry is, of course, money. Fracking firms like Halliburton and outfits like the American Petroleum Institute (API) insist that the feds needn't bother their pretty little heads over the possible health and environmental issues posed by fracking. This is a matter best regulated state-by-state, according to unique local characteristics, says the API.
We hear this refrain over and over again from Organized Money, for the obvious reason that it's easier for huge, rich corporations to muscle state lawmakers, regulators, and governors than it is to logroll the Department of Energy and the EPA. But setting aside matters of money and power, it's instructive to take a peek at the contemporary science of fracking, which has only been economically feasible since 1994.
Among the problems posed by a fracking operation (which drills below the water table, applying tremendous force to split open tightly compacted layers of rock) are dangers from water and air pollution, disposal and/or spillage of wastewater (upchucked at a rate of 3 million to 8 million gallons a week), seismic disruption (like the little earthquakes that broke out last year in Ohio), and even radioactivity.
That's a lot of science. But just one of these disciplines helps to illustrate the complexity of judging whether regulators might be wise, in the long run, to approach fracking the way the FDA should have approached thalidomide.
The "water" used to crack open shale beds isn't really water by the time it's pumped underground. Last year, a Congressional committee learned that it contains various mixtures of about 2,500 "hydraulic fracturing products" and that "more than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens… or listed as hazardous air pollutants."
I looked up a list of the fracking fluids and didn't recognize most of them, including carboxymethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose. However, I did recognize a few. For example, among the cocktail mixers being used to burst open gas deposits beneath the public water supply are: ammonia, xylene, toluene, methanol, potassium chloride, naphthalene, boric acid, hydrogen peroxide, kerosene, aluminium chloride, acetone, copper sulfate, benzene, carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol, sucrose and lactose. Lactose? All of these chemicals have to be recovered and dumped somewhere. But where?
According to the Petroleum Institute, real smart state politicians have sussed out every possible problem. There's not a thing to worry about. Except…
Well, the most eagerly coveted gas deposit right now is the Marcellus Shale, which underlies eight states -- of which only Ohio has drafted a set of fracking rules (which it's now hurriedly updating after all those earthquakes). New York, another Marcellus gas bonanza, has ordered a halt to all fracking, to allow time for… yes, science.
Meanwhile, each Marcellus state is feeling pressure -- on a hydraulic scale -- from the gas industry, and from local landowners eager to sell mineral rights. API chief Jack Gerard beautifully recited a classic Organized Money sutra: "There are already strong state regulatory systems in place. Adding potentially redundant federal regulation could stifle the kind of investment that has led to lower energy prices for consumers, more American jobs, and increased energy security."
Damn the science. Full speed ahead.