Much Ado About Fracking

Posted on March 8, 2011 by Robert Kirsch

The year 2011 has begun much in the way 2010 ended. There is activity across the northeast and nationally about whether hydraulic fracturing, a technique used for decades in the petroleum industry, posses a risk to the environment and to drinking waters, in particular, when it is used as a technique for developing natural gas. So, what is happening, and what is at issue?


There are more regulatory proceedings and investigations underway than we will mention here. This representative sampling is just the tip of the iceberg. In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of beginning a study regarding the potential influences of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. That study is in response to a request from Congress, and several members have been active on fracturing issues. In addition to the EPA investigation prompted by letters from representatives Waxman and Markey, representative Hinchey has reintroduced legislation that would authorize EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA also has sought information from fracturing companies pursuant to its TSCA authority, and more recently, by way of a subpoena.


Regionally, the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate compact established by Congress to address conditions within the Delaware River Basin, has proposed rules which would apply to natural gas development within the four member states. Among those states, New York is in the process of revisiting the question of whether and to what degree hydraulic fracturing merits further environmental analysis in the context of natural gas development, and Pennsylvania, a state with experience in developing energy resources, has put in place a fairly detailed set of rules and regulations governing various aspects of the activities associated with hydraulic fracturing. At DRBC public hearings so far in New York and Pennsylvania, the number of speakers has been balanced, if not slightly in favor of those who favor developing the energy resource.
 

But the action isn’t limited to politicians. Self promoters and celebrities also have entered the mix at the DRBC hearings. And, there is even a film nominated for an academy award (as a documentary) making the rounds. The film reportedly is based principally on anecdotes and aspects of it fall into that well known genre of fear mongering and half truths.


The action surrounding fracturing is likely to continue through the year. Natural gas is an energy source widely viewed as serving as a bridge fuel to a low carbon or no carbon future. The resources available by exploiting shale gas reportedly are adequate to address domestic energy needs for the foreseeable future. The question is, will science or emotion prevail in determining what diligence must be done by those seeking to develop this resource.


So, what does one draw from all this?
 

  1. Hydraulic fracturing has been used successfully by the energy industry for several decades. While there are anecdotal reports of environmental influences resulting from hydraulic fracturing practices, they reflect a minute portion of the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of wells where the technique has been employed. When properly performed, the process is safe and environmentally sound.
  2. Much of the press for federal legislation seems to have originated from those offended at the exemption granted to industry by the Bush administration. In fact, the states where hydraulic fracturing has been in use for decades all have extensive regulatory programs. There may be little need for federal legislation.
  3. Interest by the Congress has been focused in the House. Most arose before the shift in power that occurred in November. It is not clear that the new Republican majority will have much appetite to fix what is not broken.
  4. The prospect of plentiful, domestic natural gas along with the economic benefits that will accompany development of those resources, is a powerful incentive for the state and local governments as well as for industry and labor organizations. Do not expect interest in hydraulic fracturing to diminish; but, do not expect the volume of complaints from opponents to diminish either.



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