As we noted in our September edition of Rock the Earth Notes, hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as “fracking”) continues to be a hot-button issue throughout the United States. As public awareness of the potential and actual impact of fracking and the related issues of rail transport of fossil fuels grows, we are seeing a continuing trend of positive movement on both the federal and regional levels to provide greater regulation and protection around this highly industrial activity, but there has also been some push back by industry, leading to some rather serious initiatives to maintain the process “as is” or prevent the disclosure of information to the public.
Fracking is a highly controversial method of extracting natural gas from deep shale beds by injecting into the ground enormous amounts of water laced with various chemicals to fracture the rock and release the gas, which then flows back to the surface along with the chemical fluids.
Across the nation, states and communities are grappling issues associated with fracking, pitting industry against environmentalists, with federal, state and local governments trying to decide whether to allow hydro fracking and, if so, how to regulate this extractive drilling technique.
One of the most disputed aspects of hydro fracking involves whether and to what extent drilling companies should be required to disclose to regulators and the public at large exactly what types of chemicals they inject into the ground. While environmentalists (including Rock the Earth) have been advocating for full disclosure of the chemicals contained within fracking fluids, several states take a different approach. We noted some of these peculiar, anti-information laws in North Carolina and Wyoming last year.
Other states have taken more positive (and more publicly-protective) steps.
This past December, in part due to massive public pressure and given the health risks around fracking, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo banned the practice in the state. This week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued their six-year, 2,000 page technical report upon which the state ban was based.
Last year in Colorado, in an agreement to keep anti-fracking initiatives off the fall ballot, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s task force on oil and gas began discussing proposals that would force energy companies to disclose all chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing and give local governments more of a say on where wells can be drilled. In the end, when the task force concluded their work and reported to Hickenlooper this past February, only 9 of an original 56 proposals made their way to the Governor for implementation, leading to the oil and gas lobby to declare victory.
The State of Oklahoma has developed a website called Earthquakes in Oklahoma that is a “one-stop source for information on earthquakes in Oklahoma.” The site includes an interactive map that displays the dramatic change not only in the number of earthquakes but in their distribution. Instead of a scattering around the state, they’re clustered heavily in areas where drilling operations are disposing of fracking wastewater. As a result of these continued studies, on April 21, 2015, the Oklahoma Geological Survey announced that the majority of recent earthquakes in central and north-central Oklahoma are likely triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells from fracking. Further, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) independently echoed these findings in May.
Similar to Oklahoma, just last week, the USGS drew similar conclusions in Texas that link recent earthquake activity to fracking. Then, certainly not siding with a more protective approach advocated by some states, this week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that prohibits cities and towns from banning fracking.
At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues a number of hydro fracking environmental reviews, including a study of potential impacts on drinking water. Significantly, EPA has initiated the process of regulating fracking fluids, and is considering how to address the issue of disclosure of the chemicals used.
On May 9, 2014, EPA released an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that sought public “comment” on the types of information that should be reported or disclosed about fracking substances or mixtures, and the mechanism for obtaining this information. Rock the Earth submitted formal comments on the proposed rulemaking in September of 2014, urging the EPA to require maximum transparency with regard to the composition of fracking fluids. A substantial amount of data on fracking can be found on FracFocus (http://fracfocus.org/), a website that serves as a registry for well sites and the chemicals used in fracking.
In March of 2015, the EPA released a report to provide a fuller picture of the information available for states, industry and communities working to safeguard drinking water resources and protect public health. The report, “The Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Registry 1.0,” is a peer-reviewed analysis of more than two years of data provided by organizations that manage FracFocus: the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Fracking companies disclosed information on individual oil and gas production wells hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and February 2013. EPA researchers then compiled a database from more than 39,000 disclosures. The EPA states that the purpose of this research is to assist government at all levels to make decisions regarding fracking that will effectively protect the environment and local communities.
Also in March, the Obama administration issued its first set of regulations around the practice of fracking as it concerns public lands. The rules are set to take effect this summer and basically focus on drilling safety, allowing government workers to inspect and validate the safety and integrity of the concrete barriers that line fracking wells. They will require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in the fracturing process within 30 days of completing fracking operations, using FracFocus. But again, these rules only apply to fracking activities on PUBLIC lands. The Independent Petroleum Association of America has already filed a lawsuit to challenge the new regulations, and large environmental groups have decried the new rules as “toothless.” Meanwhile, there’s hope as others in Congress introduce bills to completely ban fracking on public lands.
For the latest information on fracking or to find out how you can take action on the issue, visit the Rock the Earth Fracking Project Page.