Oh, the extreme lengths companies will go to these days to get at oil and gas. Extraction methods are often over-the-top expensive, and things can—and do—go horribly wrong.
Take fracking—a process that helps extract oil and natural gas from impermeable rock formations. It all happens deep below the earth’s surface via wells that can stretch for a mile or longer. Up to millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped into these wells at high pressure to break the rock and release the goods.
While the exact mixtures of chemicals used for fracking are often withheld as trade secrets, we do know that many of them have been associated with a whole host of health issues, including cancer. Moreover, fracking can cause some severe environmental impacts and public health threats.
Even on good days, a fracking operation does not make for a great neighbor. Drilling and fracturing cause loud noises and require bright lights. Industrial equipment, like flare stacks and waste pits, emit smog-forming volatile organic compounds and benzene. And a new onslaught of heavy truck traffic crowds and damages local roads.
On bad days, things get even worse. Chemical-laced wastewater can spill and pollute drinking water as well as cause earthquakes when massive amounts of it are disposed. Fracking is also not immune to mishaps like dangerous and climate change–aggravating methane leaks and even explosions.
So it’s not surprising that community opposition has been so strong in some areas that it has forced fracking operations to consider setting up elsewhere. “The grassroots approach is critical,” Daniel Raichel, NRDC staff attorney, asserts. “The reason we don’t see more movement on some of these issues legally is that the oil and gas companies have a ton of money. In the face of apathy from the general populace, they will get their way.”
Turns out there are plenty of ways to make your voice heard.
At the federal level
“Fracking enjoys loopholes from a number of our bedrock environmental laws,” Raichel notes. For example, oil and gas waste is not considered hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This can make it difficult for concerned citizens to push the needle on a federal level, but it’s still important to call your elected representatives and urge them to close these loopholes. “Although sweeping change might be slow in coming, staying vocal keeps the pressure on elected officials and industry,” Raichel says. “As we’ve seen before, if there is enough of a groundswell, it will make a difference.”
At the state level
When it comes to fracking, federal law actually leaves most of the control to the states. And each state law differs. Take New York, which demanded that high-volume fracking be reviewed carefully before being let loose across the state (as it was in nearby Pennsylvania). This gave concerned New Yorkers the time and opportunity to get involved at several key moments throughout that review process, leading to a statewide ban in 2015.
Even if your state doesn’t have a mandatory review process, you can still ask state representatives for strong laws. You can also get involved when regulatory codes are being revised or during comment periods. To know when these opportunities arise, join an anti-fracking group in your state.
At the local level
Local activists “are the folks who really have the ability to change something,” says Damon Nagami, NRDC senior attorney. Need inspiration? The upstate New York–based husband-and-wife lawyer team of David and Helen Slottje are a shining example. They started helping communities push through bans on fracking and eventually founded the Community Environmental Defense Council in 2009.
If your state won’t allow a complete fracking ban at the local level, or if you’re concerned your municipal action will backfire, you can take a more nuanced approach. Try pushing smaller-scale ideas at town meetings or with local representatives. For example, you could try to bar fracking in residential areas, within 5,000 feet of a school, or near parks or nature preserves.
When creating actual ordinances, it’s important to use specific language and tight terms so oil and gas companies can’t find loopholes to slip through. Because this code is hard for nonprofessionals to crack, NRDC developed the Community Fracking Defense Project, which provides legal advice at the local level. “Sometimes you just need an expert on your side,” Nagami says.
NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project allows residents to stand up to oil and gas companies.
The U.S. Forest Service recently protected most of the George Washington National Forest from drilling. Will more frack-free forests follow?
Proposed regulations would still allow wastewater to be disposed of in the watershed, with risks to both drinking water and the environment.