Congress Wants to Keep the Feds Out of Fracking: Bad Idea

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | November 5, 2013, 4:58 pm EDT
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In July, before our Science and Democracy forum on fracking, I wrote about the important role the federal government has to play, working with state and local government, to address the risks of hydraulic fracturing and the associated development of unconventional oil and gas resources. Apparently, members of the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t read my blog.

oil-rig-mountainsI realize that there has been a lot going on this summer and fall. There was a government shutdown—and re-opening—a critical decision on whether the US government should pay its bills—or not. All of this had profound effects on both science and democracy.

But still, the rest of the country didn’t stand still, and fracking is still expanding at a frightening rate on private and federal lands. Even in just the last few months we have seen the reality of the risks of this development, risks that need to be mitigated. The floods in Colorado showed the vulnerability of wells to natural disasters, particularly when they are built in flood plains. There were oil spills, but even more worrying is the fate of all of the wastewater stored at the well-heads, including toxic chemicals returned from the fracked wells. Where did it all go? Who is monitoring water quality, given the scope of the disaster?  And who is held responsible for any damages?

And now comes a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 2728, ill-named as Protecting States’ Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act.” Squashing what little federal oversight of fracking is proposed through the Bureau of Land Management rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal land, the bill would bar the federal government from enforcing “any Federal regulation, guidance, or permit” for fracking operations on any land in a state that already has any regulations, guidance, or permit requirements of that activity. The bill says nothing about the adequacy of those state regulations, nothing about their effectiveness, and nothing about protecting federal or tribal interests. “Any land” in this context specifically refers to federal lands.

So according to this proposed legislation, “promoting energy security” means leaving it to the states – no matter what. Perhaps that is just what the well-funded lobbying effort by the oil and gas industry intended, minimal regulation.

To my mind, energy security also should include the security of the people of this country. And that means that we should be assured that someone is carefully considering the risks to life and quality of life in all of our communities. Certainly in those communities where natural resources are exploited, but also all of those citizens living along transportation routes, near processing plants, and factories, and throughout the country.

Oil and natural gas from these wells is distributed throughout the nation, and indeed the world. And the risks, as we have seen many times over, are real. How about promoting citizens’ rights and security? We need the federal government to play a strong role on federal lands and on private land. We need all levels of government working together to keep us secure. To that end, H.R. 2728 is going in the wrong direction.

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  • Donna Thompson

    Do you really trust Congress and the Federal Government to look out for our safety more than the profits of the fracking industry? Really? Come on.

    • Thanks for your comment and I certainly understand your doubts. But I would rather have an admittedly imperfect federal government looking out for our health and safety, and pressure them to do better, than simply rely on industry to do so on their own. State and local governments have an important role too but too many issues are larger than a single state can deal with.