OpEd

Story published: 10-02-2012 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Protections for fracking too weak

By Frances Lamberts

When the secret corporate task force led by Vice President Cheney a decade ago built an energy policy package, later enacted by the Congress, it contained some special waivers for one industry sector.

In construction projects for new refineries, drill pads or the roads leading to or from them, the oil and gas industry was not held to the Clean Water Act standards for controlling storm water runoff, though communities and businesses in other sectors are required to obey them.

Exempted from certain standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act were “underground injection of fluids or propping agents pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.”

A similar scenario seems to be unfolding in Tennessee.

New regulations about to be finalized through the Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Oil and Gas Board, state: “The Federal Government exempted the oil and gas industry . [and] Tennessee has followed the federal lead in not requiring storm water pollution prevention plans.”

If that were all, it might limit potential pollution problems to surface-water bodies. But the many citizens who spoke up for stronger protections fear that other concessions and exemptions could place groundwater and drinking water supplies at greater risk when an expected gas-extraction boom hits our state.

According to the Tennessee Oil and Gas Association, two thirds of the land area in Tennessee is targeted for natural gas development.

It would mostly use the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) method to crack open rock formations or widen their natural fissures, thus releasing trapped oil or gas. Injection, under high pressure, of water-gas-sand-and-chemicals mixtures cause the rock “fracking.”

Excluded from the new regulations will be meaningful public-notification and participation provisions.

Only if drilling operations permitted by the Board reach such size that more than 200,000 gallons of proppant liquid must be injected will people be apprized of what’s coming to their community or neighborhood.

Excluded is a requirement that a drilling company list, in advance, the chemicals in the injection mixture, though these often include benzene and other hazardous and carcinogenic substances.

Apparently relying on an honor system, the State will demand disclosure only as part of a post-drilling report, some two months or so following closure of a drilling well.

Not required will be surface and groundwater monitoring, which many citizens had recommended. Even drinking water wells within a half mile of a proposed drilling operation need not be tested, except if the driller states that the 200,000 gallon fracking-mixture threshold will be exceeded.

The industry itself, through the American Petroleum Institute, developed a set of engineering guidelines which it holds needful for safe hydrofracking.

The State, judging these to “impose significant costs on the industry with little additional environmental protection,” will not mandate even these minimal API standards.

Private land owners can be forced to “integrate” theirs with other owners’ tracts, for greatest efficiency in “drilling and production units.” Let owners be consoled for the forced pooling, though ­— they are promised “just compensation.”