March 5, 2012

Who is regulating fracking?

What regulations are in the works? Or is it "Drill, baby, drill" unlimited?

Gas producers are generally left to police themselves when it comes to spills--as the top five companies reaped $13.7 billion profits in 2011. In Pennsylvania, regulators do not do unannounced inspections at this time. Gas producers report their own spills, write their own spill response plans, and lead their own spill cleanup work. So the proverbial fox is in the fracking henhouse.

One industry study admitted that 25 percent of fracked wells probably leak after 5 years and 40 percent after 8 years, so I’m not satisfied with self-regulation. Somebody else needs to be in the henhouse.
A number of nations have banned fracking until investigations are concluded, but the EPA has not yet found any reason to do so in the U.S.

The EPA studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress was considering whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. An early draft of that study discussed potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned “possible evidence” of contamination of an aquifer. The report’s final version excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking “poses little or no threat to drinking water.” Shortly after the study was released, an EPA. whistle-blower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure.

Recently a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that drilling may contaminate drinking water wells, after all—but with methane, NOT hydrofracking fluids. Apparently, methane concentrations in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling sites in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York are 17 times higher, on average, than concentrations of this gas in drinking water wells in areas without any drillling. Coincidence? I think not.

The former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources described fracking in this pithy statement: “We’re burning the furniture to heat the house . . . and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

At this time, the EPA is in the midst of a major investigation into the safety of groundwater near fracking sites. Unfortunately it is moving at government glacial speed. The investigation is due to last through 2012 with a report due in 2014.

But it’s far more complicated than simply deciding whether to ban or to regulate. According to a Quinnipiac poll in New York in December, 45 percent oppose hydraulic fracturing and 44 percent favor it. A majority thinks it would create jobs, but also that it would damage the environment.

The EPA had not been able to document any confirmed groundwater contamination from fracking operations—until last December. Then an EPA report confirmed dangerous levels of benzene in a an aquifer that supplied public drinking water to people in Pavillion, Wyoming. The gas industry responded that this was a probability, but NOT a conclusion.

Last Wednesday, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, told a congressional hearing that his department is going to issue new federal regulations to control hydraulic fracturing in federal lands. Some see this as a violation of state’s rights to regulate oil and gas development within their own borders.  But these regulations, created by the Department of the Interior, would apply only to fracking that takes place on federal lands, not to the fracking on private land, where most of the shale formations are found. But if the proposed regulations are successfully implemented, they could help bring parity to fracking regulations, which vary widely by state.

The gas industry states that, in most instances, the gas-bearing and water-bearing layers of shale are widely separated by thousands of vertical feet, as well as by rock. Thus, they attest that fracking is unlikely to contaminate drinking water. But the industry admits to a number of cases of contamination from accidental surface spills, saying they are similar to what we see from virtually every industry that transports and pumps liquids.

However, since January, Pennsylvania officials have found more than 530 violations at natural gas drilling sites across the state, ranging from spills and leaks to poor erosion and sediment controls.
But the government must protect public water from damage from hydraulic fracturing, no matter what you believe the role of government to be. The industry will NOT do it voluntarily. That is why Food and Water Watch is calling for Congress to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act and to put a moratorium on further drilling until the EPA conducts a thorough review of the technology’s impacts on human health and the environment.

Want to do your own research?

Start out at for a good understanding of what this agency is doing.
Quite a few environmental groups are closely monitoring what's going in a number of states as accidents occur.
For the industry side of the issue, visit and their fracking-friendly links.