Risks Posed By Fracking

“Fracking” is the collective and colloquial term for the use of high volume hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuel extraction. Its purpose is to extract oil and gas from rock formations deep underground (in deep shale formations) with high-pressure ‘fracking fluids’.

These fluids contain significant amounts of water, chemicals, and sand that fracture rock layers to free the trapped oil or gas so it can be pumped out.

Although fracking as a process has been in use for decades, its environmental consequences remain significant. First, fracking is an intensive activity that requires large access roads, acres of clearing sites, drilling rig access, and storage and processing structures. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water are brought into the site and mixed with chemical agents, sand, and emulsifiers.

Although the fracking fluid is 98% water, the oil and gas industries have reported that between 2008 and 2013, 39 chemicals were used in fracking fluids that were known as (most likely) human carcinogens (Safe Water Drinking Act) for being riskful for human health, or known as hazardous pollutants (Clean Air Act).

These fluids have to be kept out of normal watersheds in surface containments or be sequestered underground – in either location, these fluids have the potential to “eventually … migrate into and contaminate groundwater sources for waterways and drinking supplies.”

Separate from the concerns of storage and disposal of contaminated fracking fluids, there are risks with “propping” substances. The oil and gas industries use silica gels to “prop” open wells before water injection. If these gels are improperly handled, they can become airborne, enter a person’s lungs, and cause incurable lung diseases. Further indirect effects can come transporting oil and gas away from the fracking site, which can be a way for accidents and spills to occur.

Finally, in California, there are also concerns about fracking’s significant water use during drought conditions, and about the disposal of wastewater, which has been linked to small-scale earthquakes. Cyclic steam injections used in unconventional oil and gas recovery also carry similar risks – millions of gallons of water are required for steam heating, leading to problems of aquifer depletion and contaminated wastewater.

The risks posed by fracking are worrisome in part because there is no national regulatory framework governing it, only a “patchwork” of inconsistent regulations that leave open the potential for spills, contamination and other ill effects throughout the country.

Although there are numerous other federal environmental regulations that explicitly preempt state law to ensure national uniformity, prior to the passage of Measure J in 2014, the federal government had taken little action to regulate fracking.

Despite extensive federal environmental legislative activity from 1969 through the 1980s, fracking operations and its roughly thirty affiliated and component processes fell through the cracks. This trend continued in 2005 when Congress explicitly exempted most types of fracking from the federal Safe Water Drinking Act.

Despite that statute’s goal of protecting public and municipal water supplies, the impacts of “underground injection and disposal of hazardous substances” on water quality were ignored. More fracking explanation can be found here.

More recently, the federal government started taking small steps toward regulating fracking. These included announcing a long-term research plan to explore the impacts of fracking, finalizing new Clean Air Act rules to limit emissions of some air pollutants, and adopting regulations that create basic fracking standards for drilling on public lands. These drilling standards, however, do not apply to private or state-owned land.

Recent California state legislation on fracking applies to operations throughout the state but takes somewhat of a ‘light touch’ approach to regulating drilling operations. Senate Bill 4 (SB), passed in 2013, is basically a type of permitting and disclosure scheme in which fracking operations can continue so long as operators meet basic requirements.

These requirements include groundwater and air quality monitoring, public disclosure of all chemicals used, and neighbor notification before well stimulation takes place. At the time of its passage, critics were upset that SB 4 did not go much further than public disclosure and neighborhood notification of dangerous drilling operations; many environmental groups had sought a full ban or more strict regulation.

Most importantly, SB 4 does not expressly preempt local law; instead, it contains provisions that “explicitly preserve local authority.” A more robust state law may have stopped local initiatives from taking root – two separate district courts have found that state law preempts the ability of local or county governments to ban fracking.

A Colorado district court held that a voter-approved fracking ban in Longmont was preempted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Act, and a New Mexico district court found a Mora County Ban preempted by state law.

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