Tuesday, June 9, 2015

EPA Study Confirms Fracking’s Dangers to Drinking Water

Does fracking harm drinking water? The EPA spent five years studying it. And from some of the press coverage, you might be confused about the answer.

But here is the real bottom line: The EPA study finds that fracking can harm drinking water in a variety of well-understood ways. It also finds that fracking has harmed drinking water in a number of instances across the country. And there are likely many more instances of harm from fracking than the EPA or anyone else has yet discovered.

The EPA concludes that fracking is linked to “important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.” Translation: Fracking threatens water quality. Period.

The threats are five-fold, according to the EPA’s report:
  • Fracking can strain water resources, especially in dry places or regions suffering from drought.
  • Chemicals used in fracking, fracking fluid, and water from underground formations (which can be laced with toxics and radioactive elements), all have the potential to leak into water supplies.
  • Wells can be drilled into underground aquifers.
  • Chemical-laden liquids and gases can move through fractured rock underground, exiting formations that contain oil and natural gas, and entering water-bearing formations.
  • Fracking wastewater can be stored, treated and disposed of in ways that risk causing water pollution.
These are among the threats that researchers have been chronicling for years. The fracking industry has tried to sidestep these concerns, but the EPA report underscores that the threats are real.

The dangers the EPA found, and the occasions on which they are known to have contaminated drinking water, may not be the only ways fracking threatens drinking water. The EPA’s report notes that researchers encountered severe data limitations – including industry-backed restrictions on publicizing the number and location of fracking wells, as well as the identities and quantities of chemicals used – that limit our ability to know the full truth about fracking’s dangers.

The question now is what to do with the knowledge we do have. Should fracking be banned outright? Can stronger regulations be sufficiently protective of the public? Or should we continue with business as usual?

In considering the answer to those questions, it is important to ask a few others:
  • Is a short-term boost in fossil fuel production worth risking enduring damage to groundwater supplies – damage that can be prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, to fully clean up?
  • Is it fair to subject those living in areas where fracking takes place to the risk of water contamination in order to deliver cheaper fossil fuels to the rest of us?
  • Is it smart to allow the widespread use of a self-evidently risky technology for more than a decade before determining whether it poses a threat to drinking water?
  • Drinking water contamination is just one of many potential dangers posed by fracking. If one adds the public health damage caused by fracking-related air pollution, the damage to natural areas, the impact on local infrastructure and quality of life, and other costs of fracking, is it ever worth doing?
Cities across the country, as well as the state of New York, have come to the conclusion that the answer to the last question is “no” – fracking simply isn’t worth the risks.

Even in places where fracking continues to take place, however, the EPA report has important implications. The risk posed by fracking to water supplies justifies requiring fracking companies to post bonds or other forms of financial assurance sufficient to ensure that the companies – not taxpayers – pay the full cost of cleaning up any damage.

And the data gaps in the EPA report indicate that it is critical to improve data collection on drinking water sources before and after fracking occurs, as well as to conduct additional hydrological studies about all methods of potential contamination of our precious drinking water sources.

We need to protect everyone’s water – including those people who live in areas where fracking is widespread. We should not threaten the scarce and valuable water supplies on which our lives depend by extracting from the ground polluting fossil fuels whose combustion endangers our very existence.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Getting the Public into the Policy Act

The other morning I met a disgruntled woman at my bus stop. She had been waiting more than 20 minutes for a bus to come along, after which three buses showed up in rapid succession. While we stood on the curb, she fumed: Rather than getting three buses at 30-minute intervals, couldn’t the transit agency send one bus every 10 minutes?

It turns out, though, that there are reasons for “bus bunching,” and one of the best ways to learn about the problem – and identify possible solutions – is to play a simple game created by engineering student Lewis Lehe and designer Dennys Hess (h/t CityLab). Through the game interface, you can try out your ideas for how to reduce or prevent bus bunching, with system responses that match the academic literature on the subject.

Game interfaces have the potential to be great tools for democratic engagement in policy making. They make complicated concepts understandable to a wide range of people, and enable ordinary citizens (and policy-makers) to test out potential scenarios for improvements.

I first did this in SimCity, the brilliant Maxis game series I played during middle and high school on my dad’s PC. I could create a city with no roads and only rail, or just subways. I could eliminate bus service and watch how my city thrived or collapsed into ruin. SimCity addressed many policy areas beyond transportation, including taxes, pollution from electricity generation, mixed-use land planning, police and fire coverage, and educational access.

SimCity and its ilk have allowed me and countless others to engage with these issues and experiment with solutions. Games don’t have to be complicated to be effective communicators. Among the many options are these simpler highlights that still give enough nuance to be fascinating:
Information doesn’t even have to be playable: Just looking like a game can make it more accessible, as in this video about subway delays from the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The wider the range of options – as SimCity had, and Cities: Skylines, a just-out game that’s touted as its intellectual heir – the greater the potential for mass public involvement, and creative solution experimentation.

This can create a more informed public, which is essential to good government – if the rules of the game accurately represent reality. If games have the power to educate and engage, they also have the power to mislead.

But gamification of public policy choices and dilemmas isn’t just for recreation. Getting large numbers of people to play such games can enable us to crowd-source solutions to real-world problems, educate the public about critical policy choices and dilemmas, gain critical information about public concerns and preferences, and support richer, more informed, and more diverse participation in public policy debates.