Regulations Won't Make Fracking Safe

FILE - This Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 photo shows a natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy in Morgantown, W.Va. T
FILE - This Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 photo shows a natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy in Morgantown, W.Va. The well is the subject of a dispute over a drilling ban recently enacted by the city of Morgantown, which is directly across the Monongahela River from the well. On Wednesday, April 11, 2012, the price of natural gas has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade, a remarkable decline for a commodity that not long ago was believed to be in short supply. Natural gas production has boomed across the country as energy companies employ a new drilling technique to tap previously untouched reserves. The process has raised concerns about water safety, and has been temporarily banned in New York and New Jersey. But where it has been allowed, it has led to increases in drilling, job growth and production. (AP Photo/David Smith)

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has opened another public comment period on its proposed fracking regulations in order to extend the rule-making process. The health impacts study is not yet complete and DEC claims it won't make any decisions until it can guarantee that fracking can be done safely in the state. If that really is DEC's mission, then the only decision it can make is to ban fracking because regulations, no matter how strict, cannot make it safe. Beyond the question of whether the practice can ever be safe, as long as it is cheaper for companies to pay any fines that may result from regulatory violations than make the necessary operational changes, regulations cannot protect communities from the environmental and health impacts of fracking.

Violating environmental regulations has little consequencs. For one, very few violations are actually enforced. In 2010, the EPA found a 45 percent violation rate of permit limits under the Clean Water Act, yet the enforcement rate on these violations was just 10 percent. Two, in the few cases that violations are enforced, the fines are so small, they fail to be punitive. Last month, British Petroleum was hit with a record fine for the Deep Horizon disaster. BP will end up paying more than $4.5 billion in fines over five years. In addition to the criminal settlement, the company has also set aside $21 billion for potential Clean Water Act violations. Yet, while the fine was a record, the company recorded $234 billion in revenue in 2011 alone. The fact that the company's annual revenue dwarfs the amount of the fine is an indication of just how ineffectual our enforcement system is.

There is no reason to think that fracking companies will act any differently. Chesapeake Energy currently has roughly 4,400 natural gas leases in New York and will be one of the main operators if fracking is approved. Just a few months ago, the company pleaded guilty to three violations of the Clean Water Act when they dumped at least 60 tons of crushed stone and gravel into a stream in West Virginia. The rock was dumped into the Blake Fork to clear a path for fracking trucks. The total fine Chesapeake will pay is $600,000. The company has also been fined for spilling fracking fluids and contaminating private water supplies. Chesapeake reported nearly $2 billion in profit for 2011. Any fines it pays are equivalent to a rounding error on just one year's profits. At that level, there is no incentive to abide by regulations, particularly if there is a cost to doing so.

Underlying all of this is the reality that fracking has already proven to be harmful to communities. Fracking is not a hypothetical extraction method. It is an ongoing practice that poisons water supplies, likely increases the frequency and strength of earthquakes, and causes communities to suffer mysterious health problems.

Regulations may address these problems on paper but until we have an effective and stringent enforcement system, banning fracking is the only way to protect our communities.