This weekend the first in a series of stories in the New York Times on natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' hit the newsstands. It was jam-packed with information about how reckless and poorly-managed this industry can be. Our NRDC experts have already blogged with more information from Kate here and Amy here.
Imagine a community where extraction industries are under-regulated, unchecked, and unfettered in their activities. You don't have to imagine too hard - just read the NY Times reports on weekly spills, creek contaminations, well-water contamination, and sick families. These risks are real - and, can have significant impacts on wildlife, livestock, and people.
This story really highlights the much-needed role that governments (federal, state, and local) play to regulate industries and protect human health and the environment. Everyone in the NY Times story was looking towards government to fix the problem - right at the time when Congress and the Republican budget proposals are slashing funds that would have supported compliance and enforcement capacity. How disastrous!
And, what should the public and government officials be requiring from this industry?
Clearly the natural gas industry should be using best available technology(BAT) wherever possible to protect human health and the environment - if not by law, then by voluntary effort.
Some technical innovations that represent BAT include: capturing air emissions; reusing toxic fracking fluids to reduce waste; using non-toxic substitutes where available; using closed-loop pitless drilling; preventive maintenance to prevent leaks; and, well-clustering and centralized operations.
Voluntary use of the above BAT (by some companies, sometimes) has had the following proved benefits: wells fractured with non-toxic fluids were found to be effective and less costly; closed loop drilling incurs a cost-savings and also reduces road use, truck noise, emissions and dust, and water waste; capturing methane emissions from a well reduces air pollution and the methane can be sold to offset the costs associated with installing BAT. In summary, BAT can pay for itself if companies only put in the effort to install and use it!
Since the industry already wrangled exemptions from sections of most of the environmental protection regulations (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and RCRA), Congress needs to close these loopholes as soon as possible, and regulators need to ensure they have the most up-to-date and strict regulations that incorporate BAT. Until then, the public needs to push each company to set a voluntary compliance bar high enough to protect human health and the environment.
Most states do not adequately inspect or enforce the regulations that are required. For example, Texas has 250,000 wells and 83 field inspectors. So, for now, companies must reform their corporate culture and take the initiative in setting safe practices.