In a landscape of undisclosed chemicals, inadequate federal protections, and rising reports of contamination, communities are having to make difficult decisions about how to handle unconventional oil and gas development on the basis of limited information.
While we know, in general, that filling the information gap only goes so far in promoting a science-informed public dialogue, in the case of fracking, that gap is large. It prevents scientists from accessing data essential to understanding environmental, health, and socioeconomic impacts. And it has the capacity to swallow up the public’s trust in the policy makers who should be taking informed steps to protect public health and safety.
Addressing the role of unconventional oil and gas development in our society goes far beyond answering technical questions, although plenty of those need to be resolved, too. Since we released our report Toward an Evidence-based Fracking Debate in October 2013, new findings, new laws, and new questions have emerged.
New findings: Water contamination confirmed, public trust declining
New research from Resources for the Future (RFF) examined the messaging about fracking conducted by both supporters and opponents. Findings indicated that the latter’s messaging has been more successful at raising the level of public awareness about risks to water and air than industry messaging has been at downplaying them. Many people even showed a willingness to pay to reduce these risks.
Not surprisingly, anti-fracking messaging has been successful, at least in part, because water risks rank high on the list of public anxieties. And there is mounting evidence behind some of them. A 2014 Associated Press investigation into drilling-related water contamination complaints in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia documented confirmed cases of contamination, and controversies continue to persist over how some complaints have been managed.
The AP also found reporting gaps and discrepancies between states. Communities realistically trying to assess fracking’s potential harms relative to potential benefits need comprehensive details about contamination incidents, even when those incidents prove unrelated to fracking. Without this information, fears escalate on the basis of anecdotal evidence, and trust falls in both the industry and public officials.
New laws: State and local regulations passed, controversy brewing
Tighter restrictions passed in California and moratoria in Colorado represent some of the ways voters have been taking action to mitigate these risks.
California’s rules, which took effect January 1, 2014, include strict provisions for groundwater testing and monitoring, some chemical disclosure, and notification of neighboring landowners at least 30 days prior to the commencement of drilling. Supporters of California’s rules, which include some industry groups, claim the rules comprehensively address risks. Fracking opponents, however, continue to call for a ban until more exhaustive environmental and health analyses can be performed.
In Colorado, citizens confronted a host of challenges in passing laws they felt best protected their communities. Since most of the oil and gas development in Colorado, where state law normally preempts local law, occurs through fracking, the oil and gas industry views local bans as bans on their industry. The towns of Fort Collins and Lafayette have faced not only criticism for their laws but lawsuits.
Perhaps Colorado residents can look for some hope to Pennsylvania, where that state’s Supreme Court in December ruled portions of so-called Act 13 unconstitutional. Passed in 2012 and supported by Gov. Corbett, Act 13 prohibited local jurisdictions from zoning decisions involving the oil and gas industry. The court’s decision returns zoning control to communities.
The laws in California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, although different, clearly came about as the result of citizen engagement and public participation in the decision making process, which is important. In a letter to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) wrote, “Elections matter. In a democracy, both sides get to make their case and the people have their say.”
Not-so-new questions: What options do citizens have?
Ideally, in our democracy, science should inform the arguments made on all sides, but the rapid expansion of unconventional oil and gas development has made it difficult for both science and laws to keep up. As a result, individuals in communities across the country must make difficult choices about their futures and the futures of their families on the basis of limited information.
For Amish residents in Ohio, the industrialization of the landscape fracking causes is disrupting a pastoral way of life, and some are choosing to sell land that has been in their families for generations and move away.
Elsewhere, people are staying put and seeing what happens—but not without trepidation. In Oklahoma, where several hundred thousand jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry, residents are contending with a significant uptick in earthquakes. These quakes are thought to result primarily from the injection of wastewater into underground disposal wells, of which Oklahoma has 4,000. The largest recent quake, which had a magnitude of 5.6 and was strong enough to crack walls, has residents scared about the potential for something larger.
Although many Oklahomans support the oil and gas industry, some are now questioning what they would do if a larger quake hit, whether state and local policies are adequately protecting them from the likelihood of this happening, and whether the risks of earthquakes from wastewater disposal outweigh the benefits of job creation.