THEIR VIEW: Plenty of hype for new fracking standards, but where's the teeth?

By The West Virginia Record | Mar 29, 2013


Mainstream media has been aflutter with the announcement that energy companies like Consol Energy and Chevron Corp. have teamed with environmental groups like the Group Against Smog and Pollution to form the "Center for Sustainable Shale Development."

The "Center" is being billed in the media as an agreement between "some of the nation's biggest energy companies and environmental groups... on a voluntary set of standards for gas and oil fracking in the Northeast that appear to go further than existing state and federal pollution regulations."

In my humble opinion, however, this announcement is simply another in a long series of smoke and mirror misrepresentations to the public about oil and gas fracking.

Of course the articles themselves offer scant details on these theoretical new regulations, and maybe they do go further than regulations in some states and the federal regulations, but from what I have been able to find, the "Center's" new, voluntary regulations are nowhere close to the comprehensive regulations that already exist in Texas and Louisiana.

I've written before that we Northeasterners don't need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to regulating the safety and development of our fracked resources. We need only copy the regulations that have been in place in Texas and Louisiana for decades. Contrary to the view currently espoused by mainstream media outlets, oil and gas fracking are not new. The technology has been developed and used for decades in these states. And Texas and Louisiana have already written the book on how to safely manage and develop oil and gas resources.

Most importantly, the regulations in Texas and Louisiana are not voluntary, they are mandatory. And if you're caught breaking them the penalties are significant and could include losing the right to ever drill another well in these states. Near as I can tell, this new "Center" has simply built its own "wheel" for which the wagons owners can choose to participate or not.

And who will oversee this effort: a committee composed of politicians, environmentalists and oil companies. How "tough" can these regulations be when they're under the umbrella of a self-policing, voluntary commitment from industry insiders whose bottom line mandate is to always maximize profit? How much of a voice will a few environmental groups have in a group comprised of the wealthiest companies in the world? Texas and Louisiana don't have committees with oil or gas companies as members making the regulations. Instead these states regulations are written by engineers and geologists who work for the state. The Texas Railroad Commission, which governs oil and gas fracking, doesn't ask the oil and gas companies what they think about pending regulations. They simply publish them and tell the industry to comply... or else.

Certain quotes from the press releases about formation of the "Center" have been particularly telling about the actual prospects for tough, insider regulation of this industry, including that "Shell said it hopes to be one of the first companies to volunteer to have its operations in Appalachia go through the independent review." Neither Shell Oil nor any other oil company volunteers in Texas or Louisiana to have their operations go through independent review.

In Texas and Louisiana, independent review of all aspects of oil field operations by Shell Oil and other companies are mandatory. No volunteering needed. In fact these non-voluntary regulations are not mandated only at the state level. In Louisiana each parish (what we call counties) requires a non-voluntary review and approval of the air quality of production operations. A company that fails to meet the mandatory rules in a particular parish, is not allowed to produce any wells there. And that air quality permit is reviewed annually.

My concern is that such voluntary, insider policing efforts espoused by the "Center" will simply pave the way for more incidents like the one last month in Marshall County, where at least 2,264 barrels of brine wastewater leaked from a storage pit into a local tributary of Big Wheeling Creek. Clean water is fundamental to our existence, and nominal fines and admonishments of "don't do that again" won't do anything to prevent contamination through mistake or "midnight hauling" operations. And if we intend to regulate this industry through a voluntary, fox-guarding-the-henhouse "Center," I'm afraid that's all we'll get.

If you have the interest, and a lot of spare time, go to the Texas Railroad Commission and Department of Natural Resources web sites and review the regulations. You don't even have to read and understand them: just look at the titles of each section and count the rules. And if you have more time go to the Corps of Engineers site and review their oil and gas regulations for drilling, especially in Louisiana. These regulations provide the model on how to properly ensure productive fracking operations that are safe. Urge your legislators to adopt the same before it's too late.

Zatezalo is an attorney with the Wheeling law firm Bordas & Bordas.

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