If Fracking Fluids Are Safe, Why Is the Natural Gas Industry Fighting New Disclosure Efforts?

Recently, two workers were killed when a natural gas well exploded in Pennsylvania—the third natural gas well explosion this summer within the Marcellus Shale region, which extends from West Virginia to New York State. 

This tragedy is yet another painful reminder of what can happen when energy companies are free to operate with insufficient oversight from the government.

The natural gas gold rush that has descended upon the Marcellus Shale has been touted by many as the answer to our prayers for greater domestic energy. Natural gas is indeed cleaner burning than coal, and will have a role to play in our energy future. But like any fossil fuel, natural gas must be extracted in a way that minimizes harm to people, communities, and ecosystems. This is just common sense.  And it is the only real way for the industry to succeed.

But production along the Marcellus has been permitted to proceed full-bore (excepting New York) without adequate consideration of what regulatory improvements are needed to address the risks associated with technologies used to extract gas from this formation. 

A loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, for instance, exempts the drilling practice called fracking from federal regulation, and although states can issue their own regulations, most are inadequate. The state of Pennsylvania is now in a mad rush to come up to speed amidst a rising tide of adverse effects, of which exploding wells are only one example.

And still most energy companies are boldly fighting any new regulation.

Recently, industry executives persuaded the House of Representatives to remove a modest requirement from the current energy bill that would force companies drilling for oil or natural gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use in their wells—chemicals that have been known to contaminate people’s drinking water with dangerous toxins. Now the industry is pushing for removal of similar language from the Senate energy bill that would require disclosure nationwide.

Frankly, it seems very short-sighted of the gas industry to object to something as easy as disclosure.  When people are refused the information, they naturally become suspicious and think the worst -- if the liquids are not harmful, why won’t the companies tell us? 

And does the industry really want each state to have to go through the time and expense of developing its own rules, rules which may differ state to state?  I worked for many years in state government and this is clearly an instance where uniform federal rules will make the most sense from all perspectives. 

Yet when industry fights federal safeguards, many people assume it is not because industry really prefers a patchwork of different rules, but because industry feels it can get “sweeter” deals in states or that some states will be slow to act.  Again, I wonder whether it really helps the industry to create suspicion and antagonism throughout the region.

Last month, I traveled to Dimock, Pennsylvania and met with residents whose quiet fields had been turned into industrial drill pads and whose water had been deemed unsafe to drink because of methane, and possible other toxic substances such as fracking fluid, contamination. One farmer with whom we met suffered no fewer than three spills of fracking fluids on his farm.

These people have many questions about their families’ health, but they don’t know where to turn for answers. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has not only failed to stop the contamination, but also refused to investigate the public health ramifications. 

Traveling with me in Dimock was actor Mark Ruffalo. Mark lives in nearby Sullivan County, New York, where natural gas companies are poised to unleash another wave of fracking.

As Mark explains in a post about the trip on Huffington Post, he is stunned by Pennsylvania’s failure to protect its residents and is pushing New York officials to do better. He writes:

I don't know when America got to the point where someone can pour 590 chemicals into the ground with impunity -- where we have to argue for our right to know what's in our water and to protect our families.

To a significant extent, as with other fossil fuel production, natural gas companies have been left to police themselves, but their track record of explosions and contamination reveals they are not up to the job. And after all, why should they be?  Their job is to produce gas and make money; it is the government’s job to look out for us, for the people.  We need government agencies to step in and demand that these companies operate in ways that safeguard public health and safety and preserve our communities.

Fortunately, the U.S. EPA will be investigating this process. The agency has been holding public hearings to get input about how it should shape its upcoming $1.9 million study of what fracking does to groundwater. NRDC and others are urging the agency to take a broad view and evaluate the full range of potential impacts, as well as to conduct much-needed field studies to collect real data.

As my NRDC colleague Amy Mall told the New York Times, the inquiry is long overdue. “I think it’s all helping to shine a spotlight on this entire industry,” she said. “Corners are sometimes cut, and regulations simply aren’t strong enough.”

The EPA’s study is a good start, but we still need companies to become industry leaders, to set positive, safe examples so communities throughout the Marcellus can have confidence in natural gas drilling. We hope some companies will step up to the bar and develop and announce a solid set of best practices and full disclosure.

And, in the meantime, we also need states – our laboratories of democracy – to step up and establish protections that can serve as a model for other states and uniform federal safeguards.  Nor should they let up on enforcement.

Of course, if we pass a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill and put a price on carbon emissions, then companies would have to respond to the true costs of gas production. Only then can we determine the appropriate role for natural gas in America’s long-term energy future.