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Fracking, Safe Drinking Water, and the Disquieting Power of Legislative Loopholes

August 26, 2016
During orientation at the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the summer law clerks and undergraduate interns were given a long list of names of environmental legislations to memorize. Given the size of that document, I experienced a naive and ephemeral moment of thinking that if every individual and organization followed these extensive legislations, perhaps energy extraction would not pose such a large risk to the environment and people’s health.

By Soomin Shin, C’19

In other words, I had viewed environmental risk as mostly a failure of compliance, but did not thoroughly criticize the faults in environmental law. In the past few months, I have examined the ways that federal and state regulations do not protect citizens from the economic, environmental, and health risks from fracking. This was an issue of not only executive efficiency but also legislative loopholes. 

Hydraulic Fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is a way to obtain the natural gas deep underground. While fracking does provide a domestic source of energy and economic benefit, the serious environmental risks and costs must also be considered. During the process, an area above the hydrocarbon-rich shale formation is drilled and a highly pressurized mixture of 90 percent water, 9 percent proppant, and 1 percent chemicals,, is inserted. This mixture then sends the natural gas up to the surface. “Unconventional” extraction occurs when the oil or gas is trapped within the shale, as opposed to conventional methods, when they have been pushed out. Through this method, approximately 15 to 40 percent of the injected fracking fluid returns to the surface during the first days to weeks of recovery, which is known as flowback. The disposal of flowback introduces risk pertaining to proper disposal. However, the remaining 60 to 85 percent of the fracking fluid, along with the chemicals in it, remains permanently underground, which can affect the groundwater and drinking water [1]

Much of the debate regarding fracking today weighs the environmental risks against the economic benefit, notably in the between Clinton and Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party. Sanders’ succinct position on fracking has been to eliminate it, criticizing Clinton’s ties to the natural gas industry, while Clinton’s campaign website states that “domestically produced natural gas can play an important role in the transition to a clean energy economy” [2]. Today, fracking makes up around 50% of natural oil and gas energy production in the United States, and proponents often cite the economic benefit it brings. From 2007 to 2013, total gas bills in the United States fell by $13 billion due to increased fracking and the drop in natural gas prices that resulted. Commercial, industrial, and electric power consumers saw gains of over $70 billion per year [3]. Additionally, a key argument premises the growing demand for energy, and claims that fracking is a cleaner alternative to foreign oil or coal. While burning natural gas does emit less greenhouse gases than burning oil or gasoline, the process of extraction requires large amounts of energy and water, up to 7 million gallons per well [1].

However, environmental risk is sometimes difficult to calculate, since much of the effects are uncertain or projected into the future, while economic gain is focused on the present. Nonetheless, there are also both measurable and uncertain risks of fracking, especially in relation to human health, and the government has led efforts in analyzing them. Since the first EPA study on fracking’s impact on water sources was published in 2004, many of the EPA’s subsequent studies have come under scrutiny and whistleblower accusations. On the other hand, many environmental groups and studies point out fracking’s environmental costs, which include the effects of the chemicals in the fracking fluid on drinking water. In Pennsylvania alone, more than 1,275 complaints have been made in the 40 counties with fracking wells. As of June 2015, the official position of the EPA in its most recent study is that fracking does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States, even though it does claim fracking contaminated the groundwater of residents of Pavillion, Wyoming [3]. While trade secrecy exemptions allow fracking companies to not disclose combination of chemicals in the fluid, the individual chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation as well as endocrine, reproductive, and mutagenic effects.

Before this internship, I thought that as long as the fracking industry follows strict environmental legislation and regulations, the possibility of a catastrophe or, on a more systematic scale, damage to the environment and people’s health, would be mitigated slowly over time. However, Congress has exempted fracking from various environmental legislations by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. In particular, the purpose of the Safe Drinking Water Act is to protect the nation’s public drinking water supply, and the Act includes Underground Injection Control provisions. After the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the fracking industry has been excluded from the scope of these laws, including the Underground Injection Control provisions. In other words, the United States Code does not provide a mechanism for citizens affected by contaminated drinking water from fracking to take legal action.

In all industries, including fracking, there must be a reconciliation of economic gains with environmental damage. Currently, the fracking industry uses a loophole by means of the Energy Policy Act to excuse it from environmental legislation. Although hydraulic fracturing has provided an abundant source of energy, leading to lower energy costs, I find it difficult accept the rationale that entire industries should be exempted from the law which is meant to protect citizens. The fracking industry, as with any other industry that poses significant environmental risk, should be regulated if it is to exist at all.

References

  [1] Office of Fossil Energy, Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer ES-3.

  [2] “Hillary Clinton’s Plan for Ensuring Safe and Responsible Natural Gas Production,” The Briefing. [Online]. Available: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/briefing/factsheets/2016/02/12/hillary-clintons-plan-for-ensuring-safe-and-responsible-natural-gas-production/. [Accessed: 13-Jul-2016].

  [3] “The economic benefits of fracking,” The Brookings Now, 23-Mar-2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2015/03/economic-benefits-of-fracking. [Accessed: 01-Jul-2016].

  [4] United States Environmental Protection Agency, Executive Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources. Washington , D.C.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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