National Regulations on Fracking a Step Closer

Federal regulation aimed at controlling hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, have come a step closer, following an announcement by President Obama that the first national regulations are to be set. The announcement comes after the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (ERA) draft regulations aimed at controlling pollution. The announcement by the Obama administration follows a series of actions aimed at regulating fracking, which has come under severe criticism from environmental campaigners and the EPA. However, energy producers and the Republican Party, accuse those opposed to fracking of stifling energy production, especially in a climate of rocketing energy prices.

Federal regulation of fracking was always going to be controversial, especially against a backdrop of high gas and electricity prices that many American households are currently suffering. This is something the Obama administration has been only too aware of, especially so close to an election, which is why concessions were made to fracking companies, giving them two years to comply to some of the new rules as well as watering down the initial draft proposal on chemical disclosure.

Controversy

Hydraulic fracturing is the pumping of pressurized water, sand, diesel and chemicals underground, to force out reserves of oil or gas to the surface. Fracking, as it is more commonly referred, has become big business in recent years and caused a boom in gas and oil production in the United States. In the United States, about 25,000 wells are fracked each year, but environmental campaigners have long argued that fracking is hazard to both air and water quality. They argue that fracking not only produces large quantities of pollutants into the air, such as methane (the main ingredient in natural gas and a leading greenhouse gas), but is also responsible for contaminated groundwater. The EPA has indeed found a direct link between fracking and contaminated ground water, following an investigation in the Wyoming town of Pavilion. The residents of Pavilion had complained for some years about tainted water, and EPA investigators found traces of benzene, diesel, and other chemicals in shallow ground water supplies.

However, fracking companies have argued that health concerns have been overstated. They claim much of the air pollution from fracked gas wells happen during the transition from drilling to actual production, not the fracking itself, while a state study in Pennsylvania near Marcellus Shale drilling sites found no harmful level of emissions that could threaten the health of the local population.

Federal control

The EPA is responsible for protecting groundwater under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. However, the Energy Policy Act, drawn up by the Bush administration in 2005 by Dick Cheney, essentially excluded most fracking operations from any EPA regulation, other than those operations that use diesel fuel. Opponents of fracking have focused on this exemption, claiming that because Cheney used to be CEO of Halliburton, one of the leading fracking companies in the United States, the act was not impartial.

Because of the considerable opposition against fracking, especially from local communities near to fracking drill sites, and the fact that most fracked wells are on private property, several states, including New York, have already begun drawing up state regulations. However, the Obama administration has conceded the need for federal coordination of these regulations to prevent the likelihood of fracking friendly states taking advantage of the cheap oil and gas and causing an uneven playing field in domestic energy production.

Regulations

The new federal rules, based on the EPA’s draft regulations, require companies to reveal the composition of all chemicals used in the fracking process. However, on what some claim is a back track from the original EPA draft regulation, fracking companies will only have to make this disclosure after operations have ended, rather than before any drilling commences. Furthermore, fracking companies will have to invest in pollution capture technologies to capture gases released from wells. Initially, the EPA draft regulations required fracking companies to immediately install this equipment, but energy companies successfully argued that such equipment was not readily available, resulting in a two-year delay.

The new regulations will also update existing rules for storage of gas and chemicals, aimed at further reducing air pollution. They also stipulate the type of water that has to be protected from fracking operations, making a distinction between “fresh waters” and  “usable waters,” which also includes water used for agriculture and construction as well as household drinking water.

Imogen Reed

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