Drillers Pay Hush Money to Keep Their Fracking Secrets

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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the art of separating oil from rock, has the potential of turning America into the world's top oil and natural gas producer.

But as with any bonanza it has some secrets oil and gas companies want to keep under wraps. And some companies are willing to put some big bucks behind that.

The industry has injected possibly carcinogenic chemical cocktails underground in more than 150,000 of wells during the fracking process.

U.S. companies have driven more than 30 trillion gallons of fracking liquid underground in the past several decades.

But not to worry: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the situation! It is solely charged with conducting long-term studies of the potential impact of fracking on water.

Feel safe?

It recently surfaced that the EPA keeps super-secret email accounts. In addition, we now know the EPA has shady ties with the vocally pro-fracking Obama administration.

Consider how the IRS has been operating under Obama.

I'd say the odds are prettttty good that the EPA hasn't been doing a whole lot of "objective research" on the environmental effects of fracking.

You might comfort yourself with the thought that there's nothing in the news about people being harmed by fracking chemicals. No real data is coming out showing that fracking taints our water.

Well, as it turns out, across the country drillers are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash settlements to silence people who say that fracking ruined their water.

In return for the hush money, they must sign non-disclosure agreements.

"At this point they [the companies] feel they can get out of this litigation relatively cheaply," said Marc Bern, an attorney with Napoli Bern Ripka Sholnik LLP in New York, who has negotiated about 30 settlements on behalf of homeowners, in an interview for Bloomberg. "Virtually on all of our settlements where they paid money they have requested and demanded that there be confidentiality."

This strategy keeps real fracking data out of the public's reach.

With no public court hearings, and no Average Joe on local news channels talking about how he can light his drinking water on fire, it's very difficult to challenge policymakers' claims that fracking doesn't cause ill-effects.

But a telling court case was recently unsealed.

In the case, private Pennsylvania citizens Stephanie and Chris Hallowich accuse fracking companies with ruining their drinking water and causing them to suffer from chronic health issues, including headaches, inflamed eyes and sore throats.

The Hallowich case was originally settled and sealed from the public with the same non-disclosure and payoff tactics I described above; defendant drillers paid the Hallowiches $750,000 in settlement in exchange for their silence.

But recent media demands caused a Pennsylvania judge to reexamine whether the case should be sealed.

The media requested that Hallowich be made public because the press has a common-law rule of access to the courts. On the other hand, the drillers argued that unsealing the case would violate their businesses' constitutional right of privacy.

Ultimately, the drillers were unable to demonstrate that opening the Hallowich case would cause harm to their trade secrets, to the privacy and reputation of innocent parties, to national security interests, or to the fairness of a trial.

The Hallowich case gives us a rare glimpse of the negative effects fracking can have on our water that drillers don't want anyone to know about.

We also get to see, first-hand, how this hush money formula typically works.

With so many settlements being reached to silence property owners across the U.S., clearly fracking must cause some ill-effects. More transparent studies should be undertaken. And not by the EPA.

Fracking is in our national interest. More domestic oil means less dollars flowing overseas to enrich potentates. But the more we know about it, the safer we can make it. Paying hush money doesn't help.

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