We Could Do a Lot More to Regulate Fracking

Lax monitoring of the country’s fracking boom does little to allay concerns about the air, water, and health impacts of this oil and gas extraction method.
A hydro fracking tower used for gas drilling in Pennsylvania

National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

There are 158 fracking wells within one mile of Elizabeth Ewaskowitz’s home in Erie, Colorado. Concerned about the health effects, Ewaskowitz, a scientist with a background in pharmacology and neuroscience, took her six-year-old son, Sean, for a blood test. According to the results of the test, which looked for volatile organic compounds, Sean’s blood contained unusually high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen, and ethylbenzene, a possible carcinogen. Ewaskowitz is now searching for answers. If the chemicals didn’t come from the fracking sites, where did they come from?

The nation’s fracking boom is well into its second decade, and questions like these continue to swirl around it. Fracking has contributed to a near doubling of U.S. oil and gas production in the past decade. How has it affected groundwater? What about air pollution? Can fracked sites be returned to their pre-fracking condition? There are no certain answers, but emerging science suggests cause for concern.

In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report, drawn from six years of study, on potential impacts of the industry on the country’s drinking water resources. At more than 500 pages, the report summarized studies that had shown contamination in communities like Dimock, Pennsylvania and Pavillion, Wyoming, where explosive methane (the primary component of natural gas) and toxic chemicals had leached into the groundwater. It also conducted its own research near a number of fracking sites across the nation, some of which showed that tertiary-butyl alcohol (a component of gasoline) and other substances were contaminating nearby wells. As a result, the Obama administration ultimately concluded that fracking had in fact contaminated drinking water under “some circumstances.”

Over the years, Congress has granted the oil and gas industry unprecedented exemptions from parts of our nation’s most basic protective laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. And since the Trump administration took office, many regulations on extractive industries are being rolled back, putting the interests of the worst actors in the oil and gas industry ahead of public health and safety.

Meanwhile, health researchers are looking into the impact of fracking on our bodies. Though the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ webpage on fracking and health leaves many questions unanswered, the agency continues to research the issue; it recently undertook a study on the impact of fracking’s airborne particulate emissions on cardiovascular health. Other health studies have also turned up worrisome findings, including numerous reports of respiratory issues, pregnancy complications, and increased risk of cancer among those living near wells.

Fracking rigs near new homes in Weld County, Colorado

Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

Given the unfolding evidence, vigorous government oversight would be prudent. Our nation should make every effort to identify any genuine risks to public health. And it should be open with the evidence so people can make informed decisions about where they want to raise their families. Yet we’re lagging on both counts.

Who is to blame for the inadequate oversight? The federal government gets much of the attention when it comes to oil and gas exploration, because the U.S. Department of the Interior oversees most offshore drilling and the considerable fossil fuel extraction that occurs on our vast federally owned lands. (The Bureau of Land Management has 27 million surface acres under lease to oil and gas companies.) In addition, the federal bedrock environmental laws that protect our air and water should also be protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of fracking. But state governments are also to blame. After all, concerning the safety of fracking and other forms of oil and gas operations on private and state lands, the states are the primary regulators.

Regulators must take into account a dizzying list of considerations as they oversee well sites. Land has to be leased. Wells have to be sited, then drilled and fracked safely. Ideally, all states should conduct baseline testing of air and water before oil and gas begins flowing, then monitor the air emissions (though not all do). Neighbors must be notified in some states. Spills must be reported and remediated. There’s more, but you get the idea: States have to make an endless series of decisions when permitting oil and gas drilling.

Regulatory oversight has always been inadequate, but the fracking boom has exacerbated an already bad situation. Drillers have fanned out across states and massively expanded their operations with advanced techniques. Regulators are still trying to catch up.

“No state has enough oversight,” says Amy Mall, an NRDC senior policy analyst. “Some have made steps on volatile organic emissions capture. Some have made progress on storage of chemicals. Some are tightening up drilling controls. But, overall, the industry is extremely underregulated.”

Even if the regulations were adequate, enforcement is minimal. Only inspections can give regulations teeth, and inspections are rare.

Think of it this way. Health inspectors visit the average restaurant one to three times per year. Their job is to compile a clear list of violations, and then, often, to reduce those findings to a letter grade that anyone can understand. The government follows up by publishing the grade and inspection results online. If restaurants are visited up to three times annually, how many times per year should state governments inspect oil and gas wells, where potential oil spills, methane leaks, and contamination of drinking water can affect millions—way beyond the customer base of the local diner or pizzeria?

Your answer is probably more than zero times per year. But a 2012 report showed that this is the case for many wells. Given that the average inspector oversees thousands of them, routine comprehensive checkups are extremely challenging. Of the 34 U.S. states with active oil and gas development, only five make their inspection results available online as a matter of course. And even if you are fortunate enough to live in a state with online reporting, good luck trying to decipher the shorthand the state agencies use to describe violations. Take a gander at this listing, which purports to describe a spill in Weld County, Colorado, not far from the home of Elizabeth Ewaskowitz.

All you can glean from this report is that a company called SRC Energy apparently spilled some amount of something on May 17; if you follow the coordinates, you’ll discover it occurred in what appears to be an agricultural field in Greeley, Colorado. To learn much more than these minimal facts, you could navigate to the “doc” link, but the details are still difficult to decipher. And remember—this is the best-case scenario. Most states don’t even bother to publish this meager information.

It’s also important to note that when a spill or other violation occurs, states do not automatically notify people living in the area who might be affected. Even landowners who have leased a portion of their land for fracking might remain in the dark as oil, wastewater, or other fluids seep into their property.

There is evidence that regulators sometimes don’t bother enforcing laws at all. In a 2015 report, NRDC cited a story reported in the New Yorker that inspectors from West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection were tasked with offering “compliance assistance” to violators rather than writing up violations. The oil and gas companies probably appreciate these free passes, but the people living near the spills and leaks would likely feel differently—had they known.

In a handful of places, things are getting better. “Regulations in some states have gotten stronger in the last five to ten years,” says Mall. A few states, like New York, Vermont, and Maryland, have even banned fracking altogether. And pressure from grassroots groups and environmental organizations, including NRDC, led to a partial fracking ban in the 12,800-square-mile Delaware River Watershed, which supplies drinking water to more than 15 million people and spans four states including Pennsylvania, the country’s largest producer of fracked gas. This kind of public outcry is essential because, as Mall points out, most state regulations still “lag behind the danger.” Regulators will typically treat any crisis—as when a family is poisoned—as an isolated case, she explains. “Then they wait for the next catastrophe.”

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