By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern
Feature photo of oil and gas drilling in North Dakota, and is by by Nick Lund, NPCA, 2014
Although there are some federal regulations in place to protect the environment indirectly from fracking in the United States, the regulations that try to keep fracking in check are largely implemented at the state governing level. This has led to a patchwork of regulations that differ in strictness from state to state. This leads to the concern that there will be a race to the bottom where states lower the strictness of their regulations in order to draw in more fracking. While it might be tempting to welcome an industry that often creates a temporary economic spike, the costs of mitigating the environmental damage from fracking far out-weighs the profit gained. Germany, Scotland, and France are examples of countries that have taken more appropriate regulatory measures to protect their populations from the risks involved in unconventional oil and gas development.
The Shortfalls of State by State Regulations
For a detailed overview of how fracking regulation differs between states, check out the Resources for the Future report, The State of State Shale Gas Regulation, which analyzes 25 regulatory elements and how they differ between states. Two of their maps that attest to this vast difference in regulation are the “Fracturing Fluid Disclosure Requirements” map as well as the “Venting Regulations” map.
The “Fracturing Fluid Disclosure Requirements” map shows regulatory differences between states regarding whether or not the chemical mixture used to break up rock formations must be made known to the public. “Disclosure” means that the chemical mixture is made known to the public and “No Regulation” means that there is nothing that obligates companies to share this information, which usually implies this information is not available.
Note from the editor: There are several exemptions that allow states to limit the scope of reporting chemicals used in underground fluid injection for fracking. For example, all states that require chemical disclosure are entitled to exemptions for chemicals that are considered trade secrets.
Concealing the identity of chemicals increases the risk of harm from chemical exposure for people and the environment. Emergency first responders are especially at risk, as they may have to act quickly to put out a fracking-induced fire without knowing the safety measures necessary to avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals. The population at large is at risk of exposure though several pathways such as leaks, spills, and air emissions. Partnership for Policy Integrity, along with data analysis by FracTracker, investigated the implications of keeping the identity of certain fracking chemicals secret in two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These reports point to evidence that exposure to concealed fracking chemicals could have serious health effects including blood toxicity, developmental toxicity, liver toxicity and neurotoxicity.
The second map, “Venting Regulations,” shows which states have regulations that limit or ban venting and which do not. Venting is the direct release of methane from the well site into the atmosphere. Methane has 30 times the green-house gas effect as carbon dioxide. Given methane’s severe impact on the environment, no venting whatsoever should be allowed at well sites.
Having overarching federal regulatory infrastructure to regulate fracking would help to avoid risks such as toxic chemical exposure and accelerated climate change. Although leaving regulation development to states allows for more specialized laws, there are certain aspects of environmental protection that apply to every area in the United States and are necessary as standard protection against the effects of fracking.
How do other countries regulate fracking?
Stronger federal regulation of fracking has worked well in the past and can be seen in several other countries.
In 2017, Germany passed new legislation that largely banned unconventional hydraulic fracking. The ban on unconventional fracking excludes four experimental wells per state that will be commissioned by the German government to an independent expert commission to identify knowledge gaps and risks with regards to fracking. Conventional fracking also received tighter regulations including a ban on fracking near drinking water sources. In 2021, the ban will be reevaluated, taking into account research results, public perception, long term damage to residents and the environment, and technological advances. This is a perfect example of how a country can use overarching federal regulation to make informed decisions about industry action.
In 2015, Scotland placed a moratorium into effect that halted all fracking in the country. Since 2017, the government has held that the moratorium will stand indefinitely as an effective ban on fracking in the country, but the country is still working on the legislature that will officially ban fracking. Meanwhile, the Scottish government conducted one of the most far-reaching investigations into unconventional oil and gas development, which included a four-month public consultation period. This public consultation garnered 65,000 responses, 65% of which were from former coal mining communities targeted by the fracking industry. Of those responses, 99% of responses opposed fracking.
The Scottish people should be applauded for holding their federal government accountable in fulfilling its responsibility to protect its people and its environment against the effects of fracking.
In December 2017, France passed a law that bans exploration and production of all oil and natural gas by the year 2040. This applies to mainland France as well as all French territories. Although France has limited natural gas resources, it is hoped that the ban will be contagious and spread to other countries. This is a prime example of a country making a decision to protect their environment through regulation.
Although France’s banning of fracking was largely symbolic and may not result in a considerable reduction of greenhouse gases related to natural gas exploration, the country is sending a message to the world that we need to facilitate the end of the fossil fuel era and a move toward renewables.
Back to the US, the world’s leading producer of natural gas
Federal regulation on fracking should be holding the oil and gas industry in check by requiring states to meet basic measures to protect people and the environment. States could then develop more stringent regulations as they see fit. It is important that we come to a national consensus on the environmental and health hazards of fracking, and consequently, to adopt appropriate federal regulations.
By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern