The PC Green
Fracking! Controversy! Democracy!
I asked a senior to hold a fat stack of envelopes addressed to various elected officials and asked “do you know what that is?” The senior replied with a confused “huh?”. “That’s democracy!” I exclaimed with gusto.
I recently finished up a unit investigating the process, politics, and impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, in an upperclassmen elective called “The Science Behind It.” I team-taught this course with colleagues Beth Glascott and Corey Kilbane, who presented units on tsunamis and lunar-landing simulations, respectively. In the fracking unit, we read articles, watched relevant video clips, and watched Gasland II, a documentary focused on the potential environmental and health impacts of this controversial method of natural gas extraction. We used what we learned from these materials to discuss this extraordinarily complex environmental, economic, social, health, and political issue (especially in Pennsylvania!).
Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas by 1) drilling thousands of feet down, 2) drilling thousands of feet horizontally, and 3) pumping a mix of chemicals and water into a shale formation (the Marcellus Shale around here) under high pressure to fracture the shale. The natural gas stored in these shale deposits then flows in the well pipes and up to the “frack pad,” where it is collected and trucked away. Here’s a good video illustrating the process.
The controversy exists in the typical Economy vs. the Environment trade-off. The Marcellus Shale and fracking can provide a huge supply of domestic natural gas, a fuel that is cleaner than oil and gasoline when burned. But the fracking extraction process has some really troubling environmental consequences: it has been linked to awful ground-water pollution, earthquakes, accidental methane (a big-time greenhouse gas) release, chemical spills, leaky retainment ponds (of the toxic fracking fluid), damage to rural roads and community infrastructure, and significant air pollution, just to name some of the potential threats.
My goal in developing this unit was threefold: 1) educate the students, 2) have the students educate the school community, and then 3) have the students draw their own conclusions and express their opinions to elected officials. To that end, these well-informed students created posters for our hallway and drafted personal letters, citing environmental and economic factors, to two elected officials. I must admit, I was really excited and proud to observe students directly engaging democracy and applying their knowledge to a current, real, local, and challenging issue. What more could a teacher ask for?
If you’d like to know more about fracking, here are some links:
- State Impact PA: a great resource about the environment and economy by National Public Radio.
- The EPA's webpage explaining the process and detailing its stance on fracking.
- An article from Yale and an article from Harvard that present fairly good and balanced discussion of the issues.
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