The oil and gas industry often complains about the patchwork of rules that exist from state to state and county to county. They say that the rules are so variable that it’s like having to get a new driver’s license every time you drive across a state line. Public safety advocates suggest a simple fix: federal oversight of drilling. Standardize the rules. But the drilling industry recoils at the very notion.
Several recent developments illustrate exactly why. Witness the two diametrically opposed directions federal and state regulators are heading. Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on the one hand, are considering strengthening rules on how oil and gas wastewater is handled by classifying some of it as hazardous waste. Meanwhile, state regulators in Pennsylvania, where the most active Marcellus shale drilling is currently underway, are considering a move to loosen wastewater rules.
Pennsylvania is currently poised to enact rules that would encourage oil and gas companies to use the heavily polluted wastewater from abandoned coal mines, called acid mine drainage, instead of fresh water. While supporters of this rule change say it’s a win-win situation for the environment and for drillers, opponents of the bill say that a key incentive in the bill goes overboard and could wind up creating worse problems down the road.
Water, Water Everywhere…
In the absense of federal rules, fracking wastewater has been a perpetual problem for states across the country. An October report found the industry generates 280 billion gallons of the stuff a year, enough to flood Washington D.C. in 22 feet of the toxics-laden fluids. In Pennsylvania, state regulators, including current gubernatorial candidate and former head of the Department of Environmental Protection John Hanger, have a distinctly poor track record of ensuring that this waste is safely disposed.
Three years ago, Pennsylvania made national headlines for allowing drillers to openly and routinely dump fracking waste at local sewage treatment plants, which recent research confirmed can’t remove contaminants found in drilling waste, like heavy metals, radioactive materials and corrosive salts. State officials eventually asked drillers to voluntarily stop shipping the waste to sewage plants, but this summer, radioactive contamination was found in riverbeds downstream from industrial wastewater plants that were treating oil and gas wastewater.
In fact, states across the U.S. have consistently struggled to police the mammoth companies that make up much of the energy industry.
A 2010 report by Earthworks found that more than half of the gas wells drilled in a given year in Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, New York, New Mexico, and Colorado are not inspected and that when problems are found, companies often merely get warnings. When states do issue fines, the amounts are often so low that it’s cheaper for drillers to pay them than to comply with the laws. In fact, the dollar value of the gas in a single well would be enough to allow a drilling company to pay all of the fines levied against the entire industry in each state in a full year, the report found, often with money left to spare.
Fracking a Way to Cleaner Rivers?
Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a move that critics say would make wastewater rules even more lenient. Senate Bill 411 has been promoted as a chance to use the problems left behind by one industry to help another industry today.