Photo care of geograph. Some rights reserved.
Two reports were released by the Government Accountability Office this week detail challenges facing the EPA in overseeing the oil and gas drilling boom in the U.S. The growth of the dispersed and hard-to-follow fracking industry is the focus of the first report, while the second addresses the public health and environmental impacts of oil and gas development.
EPA officials report that inspection and enforcement of fracking sites is challenging due to limited information on many aspects of the industry. The EPA doesn’t receive information about new well sites in Ohio, for example, and their sheer number makes tracking them difficult. Baseline water-quality data are unavailable in most areas, so assessing groundwater contamination is difficult.
In addition, legal limits on EPA’s authority affects their ability to regulate some aspects of the fracking process. Exploration and production waste, for example, are not regulated under hazardous waste provisions in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Hill, with more details on the reports (here and here) notes that attempts to increase regulation of the industry have not advanced in Congress.
The second report notes that though all oil and gas development poses environmental and public health risks, the risks from shale gas development are particularly poorly understood. Studies the GAO reviewed, according to the report, “do not generally take into account the potential long-term, cumulative effects” so the extent and longevity of risks is unknown.
North Carolina, now open for fracking. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service, some rights reserved.
As the risks and potential benefits of fracking become impossible to ignore for local and state governments, communities are taking action to address the shale gas development that seems inevitable in many places. At the state level, North Carolina’s legislature voted to override Governor Beverly Perdue’s veto of Senate Bill 820, opening the doors to fracking and shale gas development in North Carolina and establishing a regulatory framework. In addition, Colorado local governments are attempting to address air quality issues from hydraulic fracturing and imposing temporary moratoriums.
In North Carolina, Governor Perdue vetoed the fracking legislation for its inadequate environmental protection, though she expressed support for shale gas development in general. To override a veto requires a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the General Assembly. The Senate voted 29 to 13 to override the veto, and with Republicans needing every last vote in the House of Representatives, a five-term Democrat accidentally pushed the wrong button to open the state to fracking. A do-over was not granted, perhaps because the vote took place late Monday night in a marathon 36-hour legislative session. Details on the legislation can be found in a McGuireWoods memo here.
Separately, (thanks to a Davis Graham & Stubbs memo for its insight) local governments in Colorado have imposed temporary moratoriums banning fracking until better regulations addressing air quality and other environmental impacts are developed. Localities in Colorado cannot ban oil and gas operations altogether, but many are stepping up their efforts to regulate environmental impacts associated with oil and gas operations, an area whose jurisdiction is uncertain. Colorado and other states are trying to pass statewide legislation to preempt local regulation, but the jurisdictional uncertainty remains for now.
A hydraulic fracturing drilling rig. Image by Cliff Weathers. Some rights reserved.
The American Midwest has seen something of an earthquake boom in recent years, and speculation that the earthquakes are related to shale gas drilling has run rampant. In 2001, the frequency of earthquakes from Montana to Alabama began to rise, the number of quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater reaching 87 in 2009. The 134 quakes of that magnitude recorded in 2011 represent a sixfold increase over 20th century levels.
As shale gas production has grown at a rate of 50 percent per year over the past 5 years, official concern has been growing. Back in November, we wrote about a report from the Secretary of Energy laying out recommendations to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impact of shale gas development, including a section on eliminating the use of diesel in fluids used for hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” is a method of extracting gas and petroleum from source rocks. The injection of fracturing fluid into a drilled wellbore creates an extended crack in underground rocks typically under high pressure, allowing petroleum or gas to flow from the porous rocks where it is trapped to a natural reservoir from which it can be extracted.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently released the abstract of its report finding a link between fracking and the sharp jump in earthquakes, the latest in a wave of research on the process. It follows a USGS report from last August that noting a series of 50 small earthquakes that came shortly after fracking operations began in Oklahoma. In November, a British shale gas developer admitted that they likely caused small earthquakes in the vicinity of their operations, and in March, Ohio regulators found that some fracking processes probably induced twelve earthquakes in northeastern Ohio.
The USGS thinks most of the earthquakes are caused not by the fracking itself, but from the disposal of the millions of gallons of wastewater produced by each well – often by injecting it back into the earth, as regulators found in Ohio. The bottom line is that the dramatic increase in earthquakes has never been seen outside of volcanic activity or in the absence of a main earthquake, neither of which exist in this region.
Photo by gordasm. Some rights reserved.
Late last week, the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management published a notice in the Federal Register expressing their intent to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for “Allocation of Oil Shale and Tar Sands Resources on Lands Administered by the BLM in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.”
This new planning initiative takes a fresh look at a 2008 Programmatic EIS and Record of Decision that opened up more than two million acres of public land for leasing and development of oil shale and tar sands. The BLM “intends to take a hard look at whether it is appropriate for approximately 2,000,000 acres to remain available” for such development.
Last week’s notice kicked off the public input process – input that BLM promises will be a “vital component” of the oil shale development program going forward. Several “scoping” meetings have been scheduled in the areas under consideration, and comments on the project can be submitted here. You can keep a close eye on BLM’s Oil Shale & Tar Sands plans here.