Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fracking: Love Canal of the 21st Century?

The federal government has historically taken a hands-off approach to overseeing natural gas development. The result is a patchwork of regulatory infrastructure, varying state by state, based on regional attitudes, history, potential resources, and industry influence.

Industry proponents say this is all good. Environmentalists say it’s bad. The differences are stark in the boarding states of New York and Pennsylvania, which straddle some of the riches natural gas reserves in the world. In my book, Under the Surface, I recount a scene where Antoine M. Thompson, a New York State Assemblyman from Buffalo, visits residents in Dimock Pennsylvania as part of a fact-finding mission. (At the time in 2009, Thompson was head of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.) After hearing Dimock residents of the now infamous Carter Road complain that their water wells were polluted from nearby drilling operations, Thompson offered them words of encouragement and made comparisons with a landmark environmental case study in his own district. A group of ordinary citizens in the La Salle neighborhood of Niagara Falls had been forced to take up the fight against Occidental Petroleum, the parent company of Hooker Chemical, which had dumped 21,000 tons of toxic waste in a place over which homes and schools were built. That would be Love Canal, and yes, the rest is history. Through perseverance and a belief in the system, the residents of Love Canal eventually encouraged sweeping federal action in the form of the Superfund law of 1980, which marked the beginning of the modern regulatory era.

Water pollution blamed on shale gas development (and hydraulic fracturing in particular) in Pavillion, Wyoming; Dimock, Pennsylvania; and elsewhere are now drawing keen federal attention. Will these cases become this era’s Love Canal? Waste disposal practices within the drilling industry have been a particular concern. While most industries have been federally regulated since the days of Love Canal, the drilling industry has been exempt from federal laws (through a clause known as the Haliburton Loophole) about what can be legally put in the ground. In some instances, drilling operators are allowed to literally burry certain waste in people’s back yards.   

Issues surrounding the shale gas bonanza has invigorated the Environmental Protection Agency interest in these matters. In 2010, the EPA announced plans to revisit its 2004 study that concluded fracking poses no risks – an assessment that allowed for the Haliburton Loophole. It has also since announced pending rules to mandate the disclosure of the contents of fracking solutions and regulate their disposal at municipal treatment plants.)

Like it or not, the drilling debate unfolding in New York state, where shale gas operations are on hold amid a contentious and prolonged state review of the guidelines, could ultimately be influenced by the EPA’s decision to become more involved. The EPA’s review of fracking safety – which is bound to be influential and highly controversial regardless of its conclusions -- is due out late next year, right around the time of the presidential elections. I have a feeling that, like the Obama administration’s decision about the Keystone Pipeline Project, the EPA fracking study may be delayed until after Tuesday, Nov.  6. 

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