SHALE GAS FRACKING: PREVENTING THE NEXT DEEPWATER HORIZON

Posted on May 23, 2012 by David Ullrich

There has been a dramatic increase in shale gas and oil extraction over the past several years that is presenting an interesting mix of technical, legal, policy, and environmental issues.  These appear to be playing out differently in each state, and with additional twists in Canada relative to the oil sands in Alberta and shale gas in Quebec.  Although the flow of gas and oil has increased dramatically during this time, there appear to be continuing questions about the impacts on groundwater, the relationship to earthquakes, the nature of the chemicals used in the water injected, how the residual water should be treated, and many more.  The matter of the Keystone pipeline has generated significant controversy between the United States and Canada, and the role of non-government organizations in this process has drawn the attention and concern of the Government of Canada.  If this practice is not managed and regulated effectively, we are likely asking for serious environmental consequences like those we have experienced in the past when we have not thought through carefully what could happen as a result of our actions.

With the many issues to address, one in particular is the focus of this discussion, and that is the appropriate roles of federal, state, local, provincial, tribal, and first nation governments in the process of approving the siting, construction, and operation of the wells, in addition to the handling of the residues and the product.  It appears a bulk of the responsibility is in the hands of state and provincial governments, but that may not be the best allocation of jurisdiction.  Local governments have the primary responsibility of providing safe drinking water to their populations, and may be adversely affected by the fracking operations.  Also, local wastewater management facilities are being looked to for treatment of the residual water from the process, which includes unknown chemicals and contaminants from the product.  In some instances, local governments are being excluded from the approval process.  It does not appear that tribal and first nation governments have been consulted to any great extent.  On the federal level, U.S. EPA is not regulating the activity, although it is doing an extensive study of the potential impacts of fracking and related activities.  Environment Canada has been engaged in the oil sands matter primarily through the evaluation of the environmental monitoring program undertaken by Alberta and the companies involved.

The very successful model used in the U.S. for air, water, toxics, and hazardous waste since 1970 that has a strong Federal presence that establishes a legal framework and minimum protective standards across the county, with the option for states to receive delegation and implement programs with more stringent requirements if they wish, should be used for shale gas and oil extraction.  In addition, there need to be specific opportunities for local and tribal governments to participate in the process in a way that protects their interests.  Also, there must be ample opportunity for public participation.  This is the best way to reduce the likelihood of another very costly disaster down the road.

Resource extraction has always presented significant challenges to finding the right economic, social, and environmental balance in managing an activity for the broader good of the country.  In the context of the continuing concern about serving the energy needs of the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world, the question is what makes sense and is good public policy?  Perhaps we are still early enough in the history of this issue to make  changes to help prevent  serious and expensive  problems in the future.