Drilling for oil and gas is not new. Fracking is not necessarily new. What's new? The massive and unprecedented scale, that's what. To exploit the deep, natural gas-rich shale deposits, like the Utica and Marcellus in Appalachia, operators must drill and frack like never before. This scale of drilling requires more of everything: more acreage (5 acres cleared per well pad); more chemicals to stimulate production; more fresh water (estimated 5 million gallons per fracking cycle); and more truck traffic (estimated 13,000 diesel truck trips per site).
With such colossal-scale drilling, it is imperative that we take a collective breath and make certain that regulations truly protect our gas-field communities. Unfortunately, that is not the current state of the law (or the politics). Prime example: The oil and gas industry continues to receive special treatment in the form of exemptions from federal water, air, drinking water, and hazardous waste laws.
Yet, we need to focus on the risks, not just federal exemptions. As fracking has increased nationally, the number of documented spills, blowouts, leaks, and explosions from poor well construction is shocking. The environmental and human consequences have been very serious (and well documented) in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming, and Colorado.
Wastewater from the shale deposits contains radioactive material and heavy metals (not to mention the witch's brew of frack fluid). Waste disposal, thus, is a risky proposition. Risks can be temporarily mitigated through reusing the frack water, but current regulations don't require it. In fact, there have been permits granted allowing disposal through local treatment facilities and discharged into recreational and drinking water sources.
However, it's not only water but also air regulations that need to catch up with the drilling. Drilling and production emit tons of nasty stuff like hydrogen sulfide, VOCs, and methane (a greenhouse gas more climate-impacting than CO2). But, U.S. EPA is only now starting the process of regulating air pollutants from drilling--and methane is not yet part of the discussion.
My governor, Ohio's John Kasich, claims that fracking is a "godsend" for our economy. He may be correct. Yet, taking time to get human health protections right may make us all richer in the long run. Or, at least, save us from future buyers' remorse. Just take a lesson from coal. Around the country, dirty coal plants are closing or adding expensive equipment to mitigate decades of pollution. What if we had the foresight 50 years ago to ensure that our coal plants were regulated properly? Imagine how many premature deaths could have been avoided. We have that opportunity now with fracking--if we only seize it.
About Trent Dougherty Director of Legal Affairs for the Ohio Environmental Council
Jon Olson Associate Professor in the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Daniel Simmons Director of State Affairs at the Institute for Energy Research
Chris Faulkner Founder, President, and CEO of Breitling Oil and Gas
Lee Fuller Vice President of Government Relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America