There is a raging debate in Colorado, and nationally, about fracking.
Part of the debate is semantic, centered around different ways in which the term fracking is used.
Another component of the debate is about private property, local government and political power.
Yet another aspect of the debate is about impacts – the benefits versus costs of gas and oil development.
Fracking is used in essentially three ways:
Narrowly, it refers to hydraulic fracturing, a process used in virtually all gas and o wells, to enhance the flow of gas or oil to the well.
Commonly, it is used to refer to gas and oil extraction from shale rock, through the use of large, horizontally drilled wells and larger hydraulic fracturing techniques than are used in most gas and oil wells.
Lastly, fracking is often used as a synonym for all gas and oil development. Regardless of the use, it’s safety and impacts on air and water quality are hotly debated.
Gas and oil development is regulated by a mix of federal, state and, increasingly, local laws, as most large industries are. The federal laws cover such things as air and water pollution, although in many cases it is the state (or tribe) that actually enforces the law. Local regulations typically cover land-use and planning components, and La Plata County was one of the early advocates for this power. The debate about which level of government gets to assert what power over gas and oil extraction is one of the hottest parts of the debate in Colorado and New Mexico.
Some local governments are demanding the right to say “no” to what they see as the dangers of a poorly regulated industry. The states, the feds and the industry hate this movement. They argue, in part, that a mish-mash of local regulations will be too cumbersome and that their property rights are too great to be denied. Interestingly, it is the protection of surface-property owners’ rights that drives much of the local governmental action. The sanctity of property rights sometimes results in a fight about whose rights are more important than another’s.
However, the states, and generally the industry, want the feds to stay out if it, too. They argue the situations are too different in each state – arguing for the mish-mash of laws they argue against at the local level.
For most of us, this is all just bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. What is important is that the harm to air and water, and our homes and lands, is minimized and that the debate is informed by accurate and available information.
Despite all the claims by the gas and oil industry that it does no harm, that it is made up of careful and prudent operators, the industry also vigorously fights attempts to have it treated like other industries.
A first step is for the industry to be covered by the Toxic Release Inventory. Most industries that handle significant amounts of toxic substances must report the kinds and amounts and where they are released (to air, water or land and on or off site). This information is then made public so communities can know what they are living next to. Only a fear of the truth would make the industry not want to be included.
The Underground Injection Control Program of the Safe Drinking Water Act requires anyone who injects fluids underground to ensure doing so will not pollute underground drinking-water resources.
The produced-water injection wells that dispose of most of the water that comes from gas and oil wells are covered by this law. However, hydraulic fracturing, which entails injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals under high pressure, is not. If hydraulic fracturing is safe, why does it need this exemption?
As long as the gas and oil industry is treated differently than other similar industries, and as long as it hides information from the public and simply asks we trust it, the debate about fracking will continue to be less than productive. The politics of exemptions show the industry is scared of the truth.
Semantics and bureaucratic arguments are simply fig leaves to hide behind. It is time for the gas and oil industry to grow up and be treated like other industries.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.