Re-Focusing the Fracturing (and Energy) Debate

by Hannah Wiseman

01/07/2012

The wide cracks in the hydraulic fracturing debate are growing as environmental groups, state regulators, and industry make increasingly strong statements about the dangers and benefits of the process. Several members of the Ground Water Protection Council, a non-profit association of state regulators, have vowed within Congressional testimony that they are unaware of any hydraulic fracturing incident that has contaminated groundwater. [1] Pennsylvania, in the meantime, continues to investigate several cases of methane contamination of water wells—some apparently caused by poor casing during the drilling process in addition to historically-occurring gas that was present long before drilling— [2] while New York takes a precautionary course. New York’s environmental review of fracturing, as revised, is now more than 1,500 pages long. [3] And finally, some environmental groups continue to raise a variety of alarms, while others take the side of natural gas.

There are several ways to narrow gaps that have formed in fracturing discourse and to stop the tendency for various groups to draw fixed battle lines in the fracturing debate. The first, as I argue to my students, is to largely shift our focus away from burning water. Don’t get me wrong: The potential for methane to contaminate water wells (many of them poorly constructed), soil, and other resources is an important problem and should not be ignored. And any potential for chemical contamination of underground resources, no matter how remote, should be carefully avoided; it’s very difficult to reverse or clean up some aquifer contamination. But focusing so heavily on the dramatic events distracts us from the many other potential effects— at all stages of the development process—that are important and can be avoided, often at low costs. Take surface spills. Recent research into environmental violations at shale gas and tight sand sites around the country shows that in some states, many violations involve spills of drilling or fracturing materials on well pads and occasionally off well pads—into ditches and swamps, for example. With better spill prevention measures, such as a policy of placing drip pans beneath the transfer points for fracturing fluids and requiring that tanks with chemicals have secondary containment, we might have avoided these incidents. Another potential risk associated with fracturing is the transportation of fracturing chemicals. A variety of federal hazardous transport regulations apply, but they sometimes fail to prevent accidents. In an incident that may have been entirely unrelated to fracturing (I have not heard any reports about where the truck was headed), a truck full of hydrochloric acid started leaking on a highway in Oklahoma last week. Even if this truck had no association with oil and gas development or fracturing, it provides an example of what can happen when trucks transporting chemicals to fracking sites don’t have proper equipment.

Focusing on burning water distracts us from the potentially more prevalent effects that are fixable. Let’s look more broadly to all stages of the well development process and work toward collective solutions. Let’s also continue the recent trend toward chemical disclosure. A better-informed public will have more valuable knowledge when working toward collective solutions with industry and regulators. Texas’s sweeping requirement for disclosure—which even allows certain surface owners to challenge claims for trade secret status—is a good example of a relatively broad disclosure rule. And industry’s participation in FracFocus, a voluntary chemical disclosure registry, has helped states that are working toward similar disclosure rules; states with increasingly empty coffers don’t have to create their own online registries when requiring that operators disclose fracturing chemicals.

Finally, let’s not forget that natural gas is a bridge fuel. Despite the concerns about methane leakage from pipelines, it still appears to be our cleanest fossil fuel, and it’s incredibly important. But let’s look to the other side of the bridge and not forget that we’ll need something on the opposite shore. One hundred years seems far away now, but as we develop natural gas and focus on developing it well, let’s not forget about the renewable alternatives that are equally important. There is no one energy fix. We’ll need natural gas, renewables, and a range of other options. That’s why we can’t afford to allow the gaping divides in the energy debate to continue expanding.

Footnotes

1. Ground Water Protection Council Congressional Testimony, May-June, 2009.

2. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Stray Natural Gas Migration Cases Associated with Oil and Gas Wells, Draft, Oct. 28, 2009. The documents underlying this report, which I obtained through a public records request, suggest that poor casing during the drilling process and historically occurring natural gas contributed to some of the incidents described in this report.

3. New York State Department of Environmental Conserva- tion, Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas, and Solution Mining Regulatory Program (Sept. 2011).


Hannah Wiseman is an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law.