Key to fracking is tell-tale data

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By John Bartlit

 Great passions are expended in disputing the pros and cons of regulation. Yet people on both sides of it act afraid that regulation will be improved. The trait is mystifying unless we look inside.  
A current event shows the shrouded impulses at work.
New York State is on the verge of a giant boost in extracting natural gas from deep shale formations by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The prospects for the next 30 years are to see tens of thousands of gas wells drilled and fracked.
To look ahead, New York is undertaking a new review of the safety risks. News stories on the nature of the review breed slim hope it will do anything new or better.
The stories say the review is focused on health and environmental risks. The review is headed by New York’s health commissioner, who is an able physician. “Health” is the subject; “regulation” is unmentioned.
A study of fracking and health problems will find places where they occur and many more places where they do not. The result tells us nothing not already known.
A decision will be made on fracking, either to stop or proceed. Lawsuits will be filed by one or more sides. The old course will be run again, yielding little in return for the time and money lost in the run.
A great deal would be learned if the study sought instead to find out what is different between the places that show harmful effects and places that do not. Is the difference a matter of geology, practices used, quality of work, years of operation ... regulations, if any?
Which factors hold the key? The answers are the gold worth the quest.
The answers would point regulation in the most useful directions. The same answers show where fracking is best used.
Why are no such ideas steering the safety review that is under way? Why is regulation not the focal point of the work?
It all begins deep in people. Fear, like fog, comes on little cat feet. People fear to look closely where they don’t know what may be found. Both friends and foes of fracking are reluctant to gain more evidence.
Some buddies of industry fear that good regulations will be found to improve safety. Such news would weaken the case against regulating. To be safe, buddies prefer looking away.
Implacable opponents fear that good regulations will remedy problems. The news would weaken the case against fracking. To be safe, opponents prefer looking away.
More useful than fears is to get better data. A judicious way is to require adding unique tracers to fracking fluids. This idea was worked on here before.
A tracer is a tiny amount of a benign chemical that would clearly identify the origin of contamination from a fracking fluid, should it occur. In a word, tracers link to telltale data, that is, data that tell innocence or guilt as the case may be.
Tracers have been used for decades to reveal pathways of pollutants in air or water, chemistry in the body and food chains in nature.
Tracers can save time and cost in resolving disputes, even lawsuits, over who or what is to blame if unexplained chemicals reach unexpected places. Tracers can avoid more complicated requirements that could be used to assure there is adequate knowledge and control of fracking.
More telltale data would itself be a strong incentive for companies to do fracking right. Tracers in fracking fluids will bring more efficient processes.
The same zeal for ingenuity that drives energy and business to be more efficient can find regulations that improve safety and save costs. It is not a path to fear.  
John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water