A local obstruction in the fracking pipeline
There are high hopes that the natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will boost the economy and bring the United States closer to energy independence, but if the energy industry expects to break new ground and fulfill a growing demand anytime soon, they need to make friends with the people who reside near the drilling rigs.
Two new reports out last week point to the potential of how fracking, the process whereby a highly-pressured mixture of water, sand and chemicals is blasted through underground shale rock formations to release natural gas, could positively benefit our economy. One study projects that natural gas will account for nearly one-third of total U.S. energy produced by 2040, and the other one, a government commissioned report which the Obama administration is expected to partially base its shale gas policy on, shows natural gas exports providing revenue to the struggling economy under every condition considered.
The Obama administration has largely left regulation of private land up to the states, and for many landowners, the impacts of hydraulic fracturing don’t just hit close to home… they drill right into their backyards. Last month, voters in Longmont, Colo. became the latest in the country to ban fracking within town limits. The ballot initiative was passed via a bipartisan vote and the town will likely follow in the footsteps a handful of other municipalities, including the upstate New York towns of Dryden, Middlefield and Avon, that already passed bans or moratoriums and are in the midst of legal challenges to uphold them. While local ordinances may not typically make national news, the precedent set by these local governments cannot be overstated. At the most micro level, local residents came together and threw a wedge into the plans of private industry — industry that by the way, already have allocated millions of dollars to harvest these towns’ natural resources.
In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that shale gas development would not only create 50,000 new jobs in the state, but may also raise New York wages by nearly $2.5 billion. So why then, is there resistance to industry moving into the neighborhood? It seems that aside from landscape degradation — think oil rigs and waste pits in the midst of green pastures – local residents aren’t sure this bright, green economic future prioritizes their health and safety.
“There are so many loopholes in the federal level, we’re seeing cities and towns taking matters into their own hands,” said Jessica Ennis, a legislative representative for Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm dedicated to protecting the environment. There are two types of exemptions that anti-fracking advocates such as Ennis are referring to. The first is the hydraulic fracturing industry’s exemptions from basic federal regulations designed to protect the environment from hazardous materials, including parts of the Natural Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Superfund Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.
Another loophole cited by fracking critics is the industry’s trade secret exemption, which allows drilling companies to withhold from the public the names of some of the chemicals they inject into the ground. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek investigation found that in the state of Oklahoma, for instance, nearly one third of all fracking fluid chemicals were withheld from public knowledge under the “trade secret” exemption. The concern here, according to Ennis, is that if you don’t know what chemicals the industry uses, you can’t independently test for their presence in the air or water.
John Krohn, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, a research, education and public outreach campaign launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says the idea that the natural gas industry is unregulated is a “fallacy.”
According to Krohn, it’s unfair to say that hydraulic fracturing is exempt from environmental acts, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, when the acts weren’t designed to regulate the oil and gas industry in the first place. “It’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole,” he says.
“The oil and natural gas process is one of the most heavily regulated industries in this nation,” Krohn says. He brought up the example of Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which has put an extensive monitoring system for the types of chemicals one would find for oil and natural gas waste water. Year after year, there has been no indication that the wastewater is negatively impacting rivers and streams, Krohn says.
But is the Susquehanna River Basin Commission able to test for the chemicals that the natural gas industry deems so-called “trade secrets?”
“I’m pretty sure we don’t, no,” says Andrew Gavin, the manager of monitoring and protection programs for the commission. “There are hundreds of chemicals used in fracking fluid,” he continued, “you could probably test for most, but it would get very expensive, very fast.”
How about the state? The natural gas industry is required to give full disclosure to state governments regarding every chemical used in their fracking fluid, including the proprietary “trade secret” chemicals. Kevin Sunday, the deputy press secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said that while his state agency monitors for indicators of water contamination, “if there is a proprietary chemical that makes up .0007 percent of the fluid, it may not be productive to test.” It might not be cost effective, but if up to one third of fracking fluid chemicals are considered secret, as the Businessweek investigation found in Oklahoma, that’s adds up to a lot of “unproductive” fluid to ignore.
The fracking technique has spurred an intense, high-powered environmental debate. On one hand, last week’s studies point to its ability to not only help America gain energy independence, but also positively contribute to the economy, especially in rural areas that the recent recession impacted severely. On the other hand, it might be difficult to keep up with demand if local residents, who possess the right to vote, don’t have the right to know what exactly are the chemicals injected under the land they live on.