After years of inaction, the EPA has finally taken an important first step in regulating hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking.” The regulation, announced earlier this week, comes in response to mounting citizen concern and zeros in on air pollution present at fracking sites, particularly volatile organic compounds, toxic benzene and methane. While water and land contamination still need to be addressed, it’s a move in the right direction.
Fracking, developed by Halliburton in the 1940s, is a process that, combined with horizontal drilling, breaks up shale deposits deep within the Earth using a mixture of high pressure, chemicals, sand and water in an effort to loosen up and release natural gas buried beneath. Fracking, as it exists today, has been predominantly unregulated, and the EPA is just now learning and quantifying the negative side effects of the technology, which include localized earthquakes, drinking water and land contamination, and air pollution. Still, the recent news of any EPA regulation is a welcome one, particularly within those communities directly impacted by the industry.
Until now, attempted regulation and moratoriums have been left to the states, but not without significant political challenges. Pennsylvania, a state that has experienced a particularly concentrated surge in natural gas development given the recent discovery of the Marcellus Shale Formation, just passed a law with a provision that would essentially “gag “ or prevent doctors from disclosing the chemicals used in fracking practices to anyone — including their patients. Causing alarm among environmental groups and medical professionals alike, this controversial gag order reflects the economic might the oil and natural gas industry have over Pennsylvania officials and is indicative of where state-based energy policy priorities lie.
Meanwhile, in California, there appears to be some argument as to whether fracking actually takes place. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the state’s regulatory agency, has stated that it “does not believe that fracking is widely used,” however, according to the Environmental Working Group, fracking has been taking place in California for over 60 years in six state counties with further development and growth projected.
Nevertheless, numerous accounts of health-related problems, mysterious animal and livestock deaths, and potable water issues across the country have raised serious concerns about the technology. In fact, Dimock, PA, a small town of a few thousand, now must have its drinking water supply shipped in from outside sources following an EPA report that deemed the local water supply was contaminated and unsafe to drink (the water contained high levels of methane, heavy metals and other chemicals known to cause cancer). Like Dimock, countless other personal stories and accounts have arisen from all over the country. A dozen earthquakes in northeastern Ohio were, “almost certainly induced by injection of gas-drilling wastewater into the earth.”
What’s deemed to be a domestic energy “gold rush” is now under increased public scrutiny and the stakes are high; natural gas production continues to increase as more and more areas of the country are mapped for future development. In many cases, a natural gas company will attempt to acquire land from a landowner via mineral rights, costly lawsuits or confusing contract language. Many citizens simply aren’t knowledgeable enough or prepared for the battle that ensues and are enticed to sell by up-front financial incentives.
Inevitably, too many cases of wrongdoing appear to follow the fracking industry. Natural gas isn’t clean, as many oil and gas companies would like the public to believe, and the production process is questionable, at best. What’s more, millions of gallons of fresh water are used to frack a well and a well can be fracked up to 18 times. Multiply that by the number of wells in the U.S. and the amount of water usage alone skyrockets. Furthermore, under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, natural gas companies are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This is commonly referred to as the “Halliburton loophole,” which makes regulation and oversight nearly impossible.
Clearly, this is an unsustainable and dangerous business as it exists today. While it’s difficult to compete with the fossil fuel industry, particularly given the recent boom in natural gas production, the time to move away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy has never been more immediate, both for our health and with respect to global climate change. The EPA has made a wise first step, but more work still needs to be done.
Portions of this piece were cross-posted from the San Francisco Energy Co-op.
Photo Credit: Ruhrfisch