Can Shale Gas Be Safe for Us and the Environment?

Environmentalists, local communities, and civil actors maintain that hydrofracking in its current unregulated form is intolerable for our environment and public health. The process is familiar and infamous. After extractors drill a well, they pump millions of gallons of water, sand, and various chemicals into it to fracture the shale the gas is stored in and allow the gas to flow freely out of the well. The Sierra Club estimates that 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used in hydrofracking, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. While shale gas can serve as a stepping-stone towards renewables, its production could leave our aquifers decimated with chemicals that pose significant health risks. Benzene in particular is known to cause cancer, neurological harm, and adverse developmental effects in pregnant women.

Such potential health risks, coupled with the environmental impact of the physical aspect of drilling, have compelled the widespread anti-fracking movement among environmentalists and local communities alike. Not all of the popular dissent calls for an absolute ban on hydrofracking, however. Civil society would not be so opposed to fracking if gas companies would disclose details of the extraction process and attempt to mitigate the harmful effects. Prominent environmental groups, such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), would simply prefer if gas companies put such effective safeguards in place. The NRDC lists out some of these proposed regulations which include barring the most sensitive lands and watersheds from hydrofracking, reducing methane leaks by fixing plants' pipelines, and ensuring that local communities take part in the zoning and planning of fracking sites.

The prevention of methane leaks is an imperative measure if we hope to curb our overall greenhouse gas contributions, as methane has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 25 (compared to Carbon Dioxide's GWP of 1). If the Obama administration wants to expand upon its recently proposed commitment to tackling climate change, it could use its executive prerogative to encourage the developing shale gas industry to prevent these leakages. The administration should also seek to limit other carbon emissions from natural gas. Natural gas already burns cleaner than coal with fewer CO2 emissions, and the implementation of these carbon caps could make it even cleaner. Renewables will not be at their full potential capacity for years. As we press forward towards the clean energy infrastructure, we do need a "stepping stone" fuel that produces the most minimal emissions possible. Natural gas will of course not be the panacea for our overall climate problem- any solution must eventually come from an eclectic mix wind, solar, nuclear, and other non-emitting energies.

There is a legislative will throughout the country, both at the state and local levels, to implement regulations that the NRDC stipulates, although relatively few have passed. This past May, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Chris Gibson (R- NY) reintroduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which would require fracking companies to disclose which chemicals they use in their drilling to state agencies and the EPA. The National Conference on State Legislatures lists some of the various pieces of legislation that deal with the regulation of hydrofracking at the state level.

Like the stipulations of the FRAC Act, many of these proposed and enacted state regulations involve the disclosure of hydrofracking chemicals. In September 2010, Wyoming became the first state to require full disclosure after the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission set forth the rule. Apparently the rule is stringent enough that Wyoming Governor Matt Mead rebuffed proposed rules from the Department of the Interior that would have required more disclosure of chemicals from petroleum companies.

Taking from Wyoming's example, Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality now requires lists of chemical additives used in hydrofracking, and Texas legislators have enacted a similar law requiring public disclosure. Two other legislative pieces on the floor in California (Senate Bill AB 591) and Illinois (Senate Bill 664) would require public disclosure of chemicals, as would bills in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Disclosure bills have of course failed in other states, like New York, a critical region that includes a larger portion of the Marcellus Shale Formation. New York and Pennsylvania have also made legislative attempts at requiring well inspections, regulations, and spacing between wells in order to analyze and mitigate the threats posed by fracking chemicals.

Disclosure of the chemicals used, of course, does not automatically translate into keeping them from being used. State energy departments must not allow gas companies to frack if they find the chemicals to be egregiously harmful. In 2011, the movement for fracking regulations achieved a legislative victory when Maryland passed the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Act of 2011. In a nutshell, this law requires the Maryland Department of Energy to assess the impacts of natural gas drilling before it can to issue permits to gas companies to drill. Each drilling applicant must include regulations, including a plan to minimize the effects of drilling on wetlands, forests, and other critical habitats; using only fracking fluids approved by the Department of Energy; and a plan for periodic testing to determine if the drilling or fracking processes had affected the ground or surface water in the drilling area.

Of course, other states have been hesitant to follow Maryland's example. Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and other states in the Marcellus Shale Formation must pass similar measures if we hope to see this rapidly growing industry be safe for rural communities, the environment, and our climate. Yet petroleum companies will likely use their lobbying and financial means to delay the passing of such legislation, as they have done before to have states quickly approve fracking permits before regulations could be put in place. But the legislative and civil will to hold gas companies accountable for their fracking is still strong. Maryland is a stalwart example of this with its 2011 law. The lobbying culture of natural gas companies in the state legislatures and Congress is lax to change, but if the government reaffirms its commitment to protecting our public health, our environment, our climate, and our drinking water, we could see more regulations like those put up in Maryland that would bypass corporate interests. Let's hope more legislatures put common good above the corporate good of the gas companies.