Photo credit: Marcellus Protest/Creative Commons
The past month saw several significant developments on the natural gas reform front. From Texas to New York, to Arkansas, new studies have revealed how damaging fracking really is, sparking some governments to take steps to protect their citizens from contaminated drinking water and other threats.Texas: From Pennsylvania to Texas we are seeing drinking water threatened by gas operations.
And recently, showing just why we need better safeguards for natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"—which involves injecting water and chemicals into the ground at a high rate of pressure to fracture shale) the Environmental Protection Agency just indicated that fracking had contaminated water supplies in Parker County, Texas.
This example demonstrates how absolutely critical it is to have an environmental cop on the beat to protect communities from health and safety threats such as this.
"Parker County residents are heavily reliant on individual wells, so they are particularly vulnerable to contamination by natural gas production from drilling and disposal activities," said John Rath, a Sierra Club activist in Ft. Worth.
"In the north Texas region there is increasing recognition by citizens of the dangers of natural gas drilling regarding air, water and land. Numerous citizen advocacy groups have formed to side with the Sierra Club in its opposition to unsafe drilling."
Rath added that water quantity is also a concern—the water table in Parker County is threatened by the massive withdrawals required for hydraulic fracturing.
New York: Since July of 2008 there has been a de facto moratorium on horizontal hydraulic fracturing in New York while the state studies how it harms the environment and prepares new safeguards. Recently, advocates were successful in getting both houses of the legislature to pass a bill that would ensure that this moratorium would pass on to the next administration and cover vertical hydrofracked wells in addition to the horizontal wells.
But On December 11, Governor David Paterson vetoed a statewide Hydrofracking Moratorium bill.
In its place, said Roger Downs of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Paterson issued Executive Order 41, which compels the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to complete its review of the more than 13,000 public comments and integrate those responses into a new draft environmental impact statement on fracking. The order extends his de facto moratorium until at least July of 2011.
Downs said that while the veto and executive order were not exactly what the community wanted, "At the end of the day the mandate of a second draft is a significant win for those wishing to expose hydrofracking's dangers."
Arkansas: One state where reform is happening is Arkansas, where the state Oil and Gas Commission recently proposed fracking disclosure rules, which would make public what chemicals drilling companies use in the fracking process. When the Sierra Club pointed out that the rules needed to be strengthened in several ways, including, notably, making sure that medical professionals immediately had access to all information in the event of a spill, the commission took the hint.
We continue to work with the commission on making the rules stronger overall, as our state chapter and local activists have long been pressing for fracking disclosure rules. This is a good first step, and we're planning on continuing to improve the rule through work with the activist community and the agency and plan to keep meeting with all involved parties.
The Sierra Club is actively working for strong federal and state safeguards on natural gas exploration and development, including supporting the FRAC Act in Congress. We are holding the industry to a higher standard.
The natural gas industry currently enjoys unacceptable federal exemptions from landmark environmental and health laws, including key parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and many others.
If natural gas companies want to be beneficial members of the communities they work in, they should welcome additional scrutiny and embrace safeguards that will protect public health and the environment.
As we look ahead to 2011, we need to reach a clean-energy future, but only by protecting communities and habitats along the way.