All Around The Country, Regulators Are Getting Bullied Over Fracking

Fracking, Cabot OilA gas drilling rig in Susquehanna County, Penn.

More than four years after America’s hydraulic fracturing boom kicked off, conflicts of interest between officials charged with regulating the controversial practice and the oil and gas industry remain widespread.

Meanwhile, in-depth studies of fracking’s effects on human health and the environment remain scant.

Conflicts of interest and undue corporate influence among drilling regulators features prominently in “Gasland II,” documentarian Josh Fox’s follow-up to his high-profile 2010 film “Gasland.”

While the problem has so far been limited to states experiencing shale booms, some are concerned it’s set to rear it’s head in Washington, where the Interior Department will this afternoon announce new federal fracking regulations.

New Scrutiny On An Old Practice
Hydraulic fracturing, which involves shooting large volumes of water and chemicals into rock formations to unlock oil and natural gas deposits, has been around for decades.

Yet until just a few years ago, the practice was limited to rural areas where the energy industry formed the basis of the local economy.

“We know almost literally nothing about human health effects,” said Duke biology professor Rob Jackson, author of a study that found a correlation between drilling and methane in northeast Pennsylvania. “Without human health studies, it’s hard to conclude a process is safe.” 

The EPA is currently conducting a multi-year study that will address some of those issues, but it won’t be completed until next year at the earliest.

Committee Eases Up In North Carolina
North Carolina officials were set to unveil a new set of rules on fracking in that state earlier this month. But the legislation was scuttled after Halliburton intervened, according to the Charlotte News Observer’s John Murawski. “There seem to be conversations happening offline and not in public about this rule that has already come out of committee,” he quotes one member of the Mining & Energy Commission as saying.

Murawski notes officials are under extreme pressure to usher in more drilling — and the royalties that come with it. Earlier, he writes, a bill was introduced to to remove two members from the commission, including the state geologist.

The most contentious rule dealt with disclosing what chemicals companies were using in their drilling. The industry is highly opposed to disclosure, ostensibly because it could be subject to freedom of information requests from competitors.  

A Former Governor From Up North Comes Down To TexasOne of the more striking examples Fox highlights in his film occurred in Texas, where two years ago the EPA found evidence a well was leaking methane gas into two homes near Fort Worth. Then, according to emails obtained by Energywire’s Mike Soraghan, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell appears to have intervened. From Energywire:

An EPA attorney wrote that Rendell, acting as a “spokesman for Range,” met with [EPA Chief Lisa] Jackson in 2011 and “proposed certain terms to the administrator.” But the case didn’t settle for more than a year after that.

When EPA and Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., dropped the case, Range did not agree to do testing sought by the Texas-based EPA officials. They had wanted Range to test whether natural gas might be seeping into homes from the soil, but that was not part of the agreement.

In the same case, the AP found that although the EPA had scientific evidence against Range, the agency stepped back after the company threatened not to participate in the agency’s ongoing fracking study. “Regulators set aside an analysis that concluded the drilling could have been to blame for the contamination,” AP’s Ramit Plushnick-Masti reported.

Range denies there was any improper influence.

Pennsylvania Problems
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania — ground zero of the natgas drilling boom — a recent report by the Public Accountability Initiative suggested a “revolving door” between state officials and oil and gas firms.

A few years ago in the town of Dimock, EPA regulators raised concerns about possible contamination and treatment systems from drilling activities performed by Cabot Oil and Gas. They raised the prospect of invoking federal authority over the area if Cabot was found to be using diesel fuel in its drilling (the feds cannot invoke the Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate fracking unless diesel fuel is being used).

Yet they ended up not doing so, according to Laura Legere of the Scranton Times-Tribune:

A lawyer for the regional EPA office said the agency never asked Cabot if it used diesel in its wells because the EPA was still working at the time to define what it meant by “diesel” as it developed regulations for wells fracked with the fuel. A Cabot spokesman did not respond to a question about the allegations of diesel use.

Families in the area ended up settling with Cabot over the issue.

The situation in the state was summed up in a recent blog post by John Hanger, the former head of the state’s environmental regulatory agency and now candidate for governor. He hits out at incumbent Tom Corbett for easing up on gas industry oversight:

The public has rightly lost confidence in the willingness of the Corbett administration to adequately regulate gas drilling. The governor has created this crisis in public confidence by opposing a drilling tax, by combatively reacting to legitimate public questions and concerns about drilling, and by reducing enforcement of Pennsylvania’s gas regulations.  Violations issued to the gas industry have declined by 50% since 2010, when DEP cited the gas industry 1,200 times.

Ironically, Hanger himself is named in the PAI report for his law firm’s ties to the industry.

Spotlight Now On Washington
By one account, the problem may have already leaked into the Interior Department, which is about to release its final rule on fracking later today.

Via Platts:

[NJ Rep. Rush] Holt, who said the rule was necessary to “guarantee a minimal level of safety and environmental protection,” said he fears the new rule “won’t be strong enough.” The Interior Department is expected to weaken disclosure rules for chemical and well construction techniques, Holt said. 

He said a strong federal rule was needed since fracking regulations “vary widely” by state.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell denied the charge. “The fracking rules are not bowing to industry pressure or environmental pressure,” Jewell said according to Reuters.

If that’s true, they’ve done a mighty job of warding it off.

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