The U.S. Department of Energy may have recently cut its estimates for natural gas reserves from the country’s shale formations by 42 percent, but the volume of news coverage that high-volume hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) – what Time magazine called “the biggest environmental issue of 2011” – continues to receive has not declined one bit. A lot of the latest news relates to President Barack Obama’s election-year State of the Union comments touting the important role that natural gas development can play in the U.S. economy.
Whether you take the President at his word – agree or disagree with his view or doubt his support for shale gas – there are many other noteworthy narratives in the debate over whether “to frack or not to frack.” Here are five :
1 ) Fox Arrest: A “shameful stain on this Congress”
On February 1st, Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox was arrested while attempting to record footage of a congressional hearing on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) investigation into groundwater contamination – possibly caused by hydraulic fracturing – in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. The arrest raises questions about open government and censorship. Fox, who was released later that day, was justifiably perturbed by the incident and the lack of transparency displayed in the People’s House.
Also agitated by the arrest was Congressman Maurice Hinchey of New York, who continues to call for tougher standards to protect against the risks associated with the controversial natural gas drilling process. In his statement regarding Fox’s arrest, Hinchey said:
This is blatant censorship and a shameful stain on this Congress. I stand by Josh’s right to record this hearing. His arrest was a huge mistake.
This brouhaha may have died down somewhat but look for the issue of transparency to remain at the forefront at the federal level and in states like New York where a recent rally in the Capitol – in which Fox participated – called for an all-out ban of fracking.
2 ) New York Proceeds Cautiously
How New York State handles fracking could influence, policy making, regulation and enforcement in other states. That’s pretty much how U.S. EPA regional administrator, Judith Enck sees it. In comments that her office submitted to the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC) on its proposed plan to regulate fracking, Enck wrote New York “will help set the pace for improved safeguards across the country…It is vitally important that [hydraulic fracturing] be conducted with proper safeguards to avoid impacts to ground water and surface water quality in ways that may damage human health and the environment.”
Accordingly, the state and Governor Andrew Cuomo may not be as fast and furious on fracking as they were a few months ago. In the words of Joe Martens, commissioner of the DEC, completing a regulatory framework for fracking in 2012 is not a ‘fait accompli.' Among the issues that the DEC is still in the process of digesting is how to handle the chemical-laced fracking wastewater, a topic that ProPublica covers really well in this 2009 article.
Thanks to the extraordinary volume of feedback received – over 60,000 comments, a record for a DEC issue – on the state environmental agency’s proposed plan, Martens acknowledged that there are months of work ahead for the DEC. In fact, two recent New York Times pieces (see here and here) provide evidence of a drastically slowing process.
In his 2012-2013 budget proposal, Governor Cuomo did not include hydraulic fracturing-derived revenue or related funding. This is significant as the 2012-13 budget process will play a role in the future of fracking in the Empire State, and environmental organizations and other groups are calling on the State Legislature to ensure funding for fracking is not included in the final budget.
3 ) Where Fracking Meets the Road and the Rain
In a move that environmental groups have applauded, DEC is seeking fines against U.S. Energy Development Corporation for water quality violations associated with Pennsylvania drilling activities that affected a small waterway within Allegany State Park. Three separate incidents of water quality violations during recent rainstorms caused severe turbidity in the waterway--Yeager Brook--from stormwater runoff.
An investigation into the cause of the turbidity found that during heavy rain events – in January 2012 and September and December 2011 – significant amounts of sediment from U.S. Energy’s mining roads and well pads in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest washed into nearby creeks and streams ultimately reaching the waterway that is the subject of DEC’s action against the company. As a result, DEC is also requiring U.S. Energy to install appropriate stormwater and erosion controls to prevent any future water quality-related impacts.
While the water quality violations mentioned above are not directly related to the controversial high-volume hydraulic fracturing process or any other type of drilling for that matter, the DEC has put all oil and gas drillers on notice. No doubt other states have taken notice too.
4 ) Other Nations Act Cautiously
Bulgaria recently became the second nation in Europe (and the world – France was the first) to ban the controversial shale gas extraction technique. According to a Treehugger post, the ban is for “an indefinite period of time...valid for the whole territory of the country, including the Black Sea territorial waters.” What this may mean for U.S. policy on natural gas development is not clear but it certainly provides those opposed to fracking with info-ammunition.
5 ) The F-Word: What’s in a Name?
No, not Fox; which might be a dirty word to some gas industry people. What originated as an industry term (fraccing or fracking) has been co-opted by opponents to hydraulic fracturing much to the industry’s chagrin. Industry would love to turn back time and bury that word in a place no one will find it. But the genie is out of the bottle. Nonetheless, both industry and government go to great lengths to avoid using the f-word. The issue of which word(s) to use is not simply an academic discussion; it’s important to each side in getting their respective message and information out to the public.
The issue of fracking is a fascinating one with many storylines that go beyond what the Obama administration is saying about natural gas development. These five definitely have legs and are worth keeping an eye on in the months ahead.
Other developing storylines of note include the debate over natural gas as a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future (see here and here) and fracking’s impact on local agriculture, including organic farms.
A special thank you to J Henry Fair for allowing us to use his amazing aerial image above. The image is from J Henry Fair’s first book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis, published in 2011 by powerHouse Books. It is currently available where books are sold. For more information, contact Katherine Benjamin, [email protected] or visit www.IndustrialScars.com. If you're interested in learning more about J Henry Fair, please check out my colleague Robin Madel’s interview with him.