A fracking wastewater pit in Pennsylvania (you won’t get away with this in Michigan).

Over the weekend, my boss emailed me to ask how I thought the film “Gasland” came out after this detailed fact-check by Greenwire.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the film (I have a crippling Milk Dud allergy, and don’t get to the movies much), but my impression from surrounding coverage was that it had some factual problems, which Greenwire confirmed.

But it really doesn’t matter a whole lot what I think of the film. Depending on who you ask, “Gasland” is either an urgent call to action over a serious environmental problem, or a cynical attempt to overhype the risks of natural gas drilling. While the film has clearly succeeded in drawing attention to the issue, it’s been equally effective in polarizing it.

The question, “is fracking safe?” isn’t really the right one to ask. All industrial processes carry varying degrees of environmental risk. Whether hydraulic fracturing endangers water supplies involves a lot more variables than the drilling technique itself – geology, as well as the presence and purity of existing groundwater supplies, differs widely from place to place.

A better question is whether we’re taking appropriate safeguards – at federal, state, and local levels – to protect our water supply.

A story in Sunday’s New York Times (which I hope you’ve read by now) concludes that the answer is, unequivocally, no. The Times, after sorting through thousands of documents, found that there is basically no oversight of how the wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations is processed. The water is sent through sewage treatment systems that aren’t designed to handle the chemicals present (both those in the drilling fluid as well as naturally occurring contaminants picked up along the way), and the effluent is winding up in rivers and drinking water supplies.

While not nearly as exciting as watching some guy set his kitchen sink on fire, the Times paints a far more convincing picture of an industry quickly outpacing the regulations needed to keep us safe. House Democrats have already called for stricter oversight of the process.

Does the Times report vindicate “Gasland”? Again, not the right question to ask. “Gasland” focused on allegations of groundwater contamination in the immediate vicinity of drilling operations, the Times investigated what happens to wastewater after drilling – completely different topics.

Can these problems be addressed through regulation? Last week, we looked at the steps that Michigan is taking to prevent such contamination. Strict construction standards for gas wells are intended to protect groundwater from drilling operations, and aggressive storage and disposal rules for wastewater (including a requirement that the “flowback” be stored in stainless steel tanks rather than open pits) are designed to help avoid the problems that the Times uncovered.

This process is moving forward because, rather than reflexively demonizing hydraulic fracturing, conservation groups in Michigan instead focused on the real problem – protecting water. It’s too soon to tell whether the state will end up with all the safeguards it needs, but the important point is that a productive conversation is taking place between environmentalists and state regulators.

From the looks of things, it’s one we desperately need at the federal level as well.

Photo by Ari Moore via Creative Commons. And no, I’m not really allergic to Milk Duds.

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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