The adoption of safe, clean, renewable energy is an essential element for sustaining the U.S. economy and maintaining the health of its citizens. There are many paths to these goals. Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is not one of them.
To protect communities across the country today — from the Santa Maria Basin in California to the Appalachian Mountains in northern New York — as well as future generations, the country must rapidly phase out harmful fracking.
Fracking involves injecting pressurized water mixed with chemicals and sand into shale formations to break up bedrock and release the oil they hold. Environmental pollutants caused by fracking are known risk factors for congenital heart defects, hormonal disruption, maternal stress, and preterm birth. Fracking rigs have become so abundant in the U.S. that their flares can now be seen from NASA satellites. An estimated 17 million Americans live within 1 mile of a fracking site.
At a time when the world is grappling with the imminence and enormity of climate change, the continuation of fracking operations moves the U.S. away from its climate goals, not toward them. More immediately, the industry’s ability to avoid federal environmental regulation — and harm the health of the communities where fracking is being conducted — is alarming. In 2005 under the Bush-Cheney administration, the Energy Policy Act freed fracking from regulations required by the Environmental Protection Agency’s underground injection control program, which is designed to protect underground drinking water sources.
This set of exemptions became known as the Halliburton loophole, named after the first fracking company, Halliburton, for which then-Vice President Dick Cheney was the former CEO.
The frightening reality of the Halliburton loophole is that it allows companies to inject massive amounts of potentially harmful chemicals into the earth and pollute the air without disclosing what they are doing. The fracking industry has sidestepped an astonishing list of federal regulations, including the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory Program; the CERCLA Superfund bill, which makes polluting parties liable for cleaning up injected fluids used in fracking; the Toxic Substances Control Act; and most state water-use regulations.
“This means that for fracking, the suite of regulatory protections normally in place to reduce hazardous environmental exposures and protect public health do not apply,” explains Joan Casey, a colleague of ours who is an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. Because companies conducting fracking operations don’t have to report to the Toxic Release Inventory Program, it is left to scientists to evaluate the impact of fracking on the air, waterways, and human health.
Their findings to date show that the consequences of fracking are reverberating through ecosystems and potentially affecting human health across generations.
Pregnant people are especially vulnerable to the health impacts of fracking. Studies conducted in states from California to Pennsylvania have shown that pregnant people living near fracking sites are at higher risk for adverse birth outcomes. In Colorado, infants whose mothers lived near fracking sites during the first few months of pregnancy were up to 1.7 times more likely to be born with congenital heart defects. In Pennsylvania, mothers living near fracking activities were at increased risk of maternal anxiety and depression during pregnancy; those covered by Medicaid were at the highest risk.
Fracking can degrade water quality and may elevate maternal stress due to its noise and light pollution. Research suggests that pollutants from fracking may impair normal cardiac development, leading to congenital heart defects. More than 1,000 chemicals are used for fracking, many of which known to disrupt hormones responsible for reproduction and physiology. Yet the toxicity has not been measured for the majority of these chemicals, leaving women and their doctors in the dark on their potential risks to human health.
The unique impact of fracking on the development of the heart and cardiovascular system and on the reproductive system indicates that fracking may not only harm individuals directly exposed to it but may also have health consequences that carry over into future generations.
Individuals living in low-income communities, where environmental pollutants tend to be concentrated, are another group disproportionately affected by fracking.
Eliminating the Halliburton loophole and making fracking operations conform to regulations established for other industries will improve health and the environment. Alternative technologies exist that offer safe, reliable energy for the long term and, from a climate perspective, we should invest immediately and vigorously in them.
A powerful argument against fracking comes from those directly affected by it. Kandi White, a colleague of ours who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network, grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, beautiful land that is sacred for three Indian nations. The reservation had the misfortune of sitting atop the Bakken Shale, a hot spot for fracking in the early 2000s that is now in decline, leaving residents and taxpayers to clean up the environmental damage left behind.
People directly affected by fracking see themselves as more than statistics. As White told a group of scientists researching fracking, “I’m more than just a statistic, more than just a study. We’ve been impacted on the ground every single day since this fracking atrocity began in our home.”
For the millions of Americans directly affected by fracking, it’s time to put their health, and the health of future generations health, first and stop these injustices.
As the world contemplates a green recovery and movement away from reliance on fossil fuels to address climate change and the Covid-19 economic crisis, the protection of human health must be a priority. A first step is to eliminate all of the exemptions that have been afforded to the fracking industry, which the Biden administration can and must do immediately.
Chelsea Clinton is an adjunct assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and vice chair of the Clinton Foundation. Terry McGovern is chair of the Department of Population and Family Health and director of the global health justice and governance program at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Micaela Martinez is assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.