Monday, October 29, 2012

Fracking the Law

By Sharon Guynup of Blue Ridge Press
Mon, Oct 29, 2012 at 11:18 AM

A growing boom in natural gas drilling near homes and schools prompted the city of Longmont, Colo., to vote last July to bar new oil and gas permits in residential neighborhoods. The state quickly overturned the ordinance: Gov. John Hickenlooper said that letting it stand would "stir-up a hornet's nest," encouraging other Colorado towns to pass their own drilling rules. Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs argued that communities have the right to restrict heavy industry in residential zones — including oil and gas drilling. The root of the regulatory breakdown lies with elected officials who take hefty campaign contributions from frackers.

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The natural gas "gold rush" underway in 31 states is indeed "stirring up a hornet's nest," sparking pushback from communities that see themselves as the last line of defense protecting citizens against state and federal failures to regulate fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technology that blasts millions of gallons of water, chemicals. and sand underground to release oil and gas from shale bedrock.

"The U.S. faces a crisis in the enforcement of rules governing the oil and gas industry," stated a new report by Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project. The study, which analyzed government data from six heavily fracked states, discovered that all failed to enforce existing drilling regulations. Between 53 percent and 91 percent of wells go uninspected; violations go unrecorded, with few penalties.

Only four of 31 fracking states even have significant drilling rules. In October, environmental groups filed a lawsuit against California regulators for ignoring the dangers of fracking. The industry — unlike any other in America — also remains exempt from the federal Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, and Clean Air Acts, hazardous waste disposal and other regulations.

Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency has proven that fracking contaminated an aquifer in Pavilion, Wyoming, refuting longstanding industry claims that the process doesn't pollute drinking water. Municipalities are increasingly concerned over local health and economic impacts from frack water and air pollution. Drillers transform quiet rural communities into industrial zones with wells, waste ponds, smog, roaring compressors and heavy truck traffic.

In Ohio, a grassroots campaign seeks to regulate drilling via community noise limits, designating operating hours, and limits to truck routes and drilling waste shipments. The strategy would, in theory, supersede Ohio Department of Natural Resources authority over drilling, passing it back to municipalities.
Cincinnati, Athens, and at least thirty other Ohio communities have passed statutes to regulate or ban fracking. In Broadview Heights — an upscale city dotted with 90 wells — a charter amendment on the November ballot would ban future drilling, citing citizens' rights to clean air, clean water, clean soil and a sustainable energy future.

Not one state, nor the federal government, currently requires drillers to disclose proprietary drilling formulas, which include hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals. Drillers pumped 780 million gallons underground from 2005 to 2009 containing about 750 different chemicals.

A new Pennsylvania law demonstrates how states favor drillers: Companies there are now required to reveal "trade secret" chemicals to physicians, but doctors must first sign a confidentiality agreement. Ohio's new fracking rules include a similar provision.

In August, physician Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the frack gag rule violates his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, preventing communication with "patients, colleagues, medical researchers and the public regarding the identity and amount of chemicals, and the health hazards they present to the community."

The root of the regulatory breakdown lies with elected officials who take hefty campaign contributions from frackers — then pass industry-friendly rules. The oil and gas industry has already handed at least $30 million in 2012 campaign contributions to members of Congress and fossil-fuel political action committees. A current flag-waving "Vote 4 Energy" TV ad boasts job creation, though most frack jobs are short-term and go to out-of-state, transient workers — often attracting drugs, prostitution and crime to communities.

Environmental and campaign finance laws must change. Federal and state laws need to place health — and a healthy environment — above limitless economic growth and corporate profits while trampling the rights of citizens and communities.

The European REACH system offers a good model, requiring companies — not governments — to prove that the chemicals they produce or use are safe. The oil and gas industry must similarly prove that fracking is safe: no data, no drilling.

This November, examine your candidates' funders. Are they working for big oil and gas? Or are they working to keep you and your family healthy and safe, while promoting our nation's clean energy needs?

Sharon Guynup's writing has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Syndicate, Scientific American, The Boston Globe, and Blue Ridge Press is a news service that has been providing environmental commentary and news to US newspapers since 2007.

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