America's fracking dilemma: Not in my backyard

Fracking isn't only fueling the current energy boom in the U.S., it's also firing up concerns about whether it can be used successfully without creating a long-term environmental and economic threat to the communities and regions where it takes place.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, gas and chemicals underground to break up -- or fracture -- rock deposits and release the oil and natural gas trapped there.

Fracking has had amazing results, when it comes to energy supplies. A recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration said total U.S. crude oil production in July averaged about 8.5 million barrels per day, the highest monthly level since April 1987. It also noted that growth in domestic oil output had "contributed to a significant decline in petroleum imports," and was projected to bring those net imports down to their lowest level since 1970.

But while America might be on its way to achieving energy independence, some local communities targeted for fracking are calling for a time-out.

In drought-stricken California, state officials issued emergency shut-down orders at 11 oil and gas disposal wells last month amid concerns that fracking fluids might contaminate drinking water supplies. Environmental activists, pointing to the historic drought, are calling on California to impose a statewide fracking moratorium.

One of the big worries, according to Brenna Norton, a member of Californians Against Fracking, is the large volumes of water needed in fracking. Might that water end up permanently polluted with toxic chemicals?

"In this time of drought, our water is just too precious," Norton told CBS Los Angeles. "We can't have two million gallons of day that can never reenter the water cycle."

Fracking has felt push-back elsewhere. In late 2012, voters in Longmont, Colo., approved a ban on fracking in their community. A state district judge recently struck down that ban, however.

Pro- and anti-fracking measures were expected to be on the ballot this November in Colorado, but earlier this month, as part of an agreement reached by Gov. John Hickenlooper, local politicians, environmental activists and the oil and gas industry, those measures were pulled and a fracking task force was created to study the issue and present recommendations to the state legislature.

"We have an obligation to develop (energy) in a way that is safe for our residents, supports jobs and the economy, respects private property rights and protects our health and environment," Hickenlooper said while announcing the compromise.

It's that balance between jobs and risk that appears to be keeping a lot of people on the fence when it comes to fracking.

Ken Carlson, professor of environmental and civil engineering at Colorado State University, said the issue is not only complicated but can be very "site-specific" as well, especially in places like rural Colorado, where energy development means jobs but might also compromise the local ranching and agricultural economies.

"What I hear the most is, 'we're good with oil and gas development, we feel that everybody uses oil and gas, part of our society,'" Carlson said. "'But I don't want them contaminating my (water) well such that my cattle die and my family gets sick.'"

Carlson says both sides of the fracking issue need to negotiate, compromise and find a middle ground "that has practices, that has regulations, that has rules acceptable to all the stakeholders." He added: "So it probably means each side is going to have to give."

  • Bruce Kennedy

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