Form 26R. That was the topic Ian Urbina of the New York Times kicked off his lecture with on Tuesday when he spoke at the Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture. Form 26R is bothersome. It is hard to locate, tedious to access, you have to drive all over Pennsylvania for it and there are pages and pages to pour over before you find what you’re looking for. But, it’s the form you need to dispose of radioactive waste in Pa. — and it is a form that’s become increasingly important as hydraulic fracturing has swept across the state. B
efore Urbina uncovered troves of form 26Rs in Pa., no one — not the public, not the drilling companies or their workers, and not the EPA — had taken the time to ask a simple question: Where is all this radioactive stuff going? Urbina’s reporting marked a watershed moment in America’s understanding of fracking with a very simple point: Before you make a claim, weigh the facts.
Urbina’s reporting, however, is not just reporting. It is a comprehensive “bibliography” of the natural gas industry and its associated political, regulatory and economic sectors. Urbina, in his own words, transformed reporting from a “two dimensional story” into a “three dimensional platform,” directing the public and, in turn, regulators to examine the evidence themselves through a huge database of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act and those leaked to The New York Times.
Why? Because Urbina is pushing our country to take the unconventional step of thoroughly cross-examining natural gas drilling before we start — a process which, if we do it honestly, will avoid disasters such as the yet-uncleaned B.P. Oil Spill in April of 2010. This is not to say that fracking disasters have not occurred. There is at least one EPA-documented case of a contaminated well, and the Agency believes there are many others that have not yet been reported due to non-disclosure statements that land owners are forced to sign while settling lawsuits with drilling companies. Meanwhile, the EPA is under huge political pressure from the natural gas industry to narrow the scope and depth of findings on the drilling process.
At the same time that drilling companies are forcing land owners to keep quiet on cases of contamination, the industry is heavily marketing natural gas and fracking as the job-creating transition fuel that will lead the American economy into recovery. But again, Urbina brought the facts into the conversation with internal documents from industry representatives stating that the natural gas boom is a “giant a ponzie scheme and the economics just do not work.”
In spite of the apparent conclusions of his writing, Urbina is not opposed to gas drilling. In his lecture he stated up front that America has an energy crisis and that we need to explore this option. We should not, however, investigate drilling after the fact. Politicians, scientists and the public need to see the whole story before making a rash and potentially dangerous decision. Urbina’s reporting located and compiled the elusive 26R forms that contain such essential evidence that had not previously been on the table. While the facts exist whether we look at them or not, Urbina’s role has been to make them accessible, allowing the right questions to be asked by the right people.
Julia Fiore ’13, KyotoNOW!