In a long overdue measure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it has asked drilling companies for information on the 200-plus chemicals routinely pumped into the ground during a natural gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, the practice has touched off a firestorm of concern over groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania and other states.
The operative word here is “ask,” because compliance with the request is voluntary. However, considered the decades-long immunity that drilling companies have enjoyed from scrutiny – and EPA’s aggressive rediscovery of its intended mission under the Obama administration – this “voluntary” request could soon turn into an enforceable demand.
Fracking and Environmental Protection – a Brief History
Over the past 30-plus years, fracking has been exempted from major federal laws intended to protect the environment, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, and parts of the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. Companies are not required to disclose the chemicals in fracking brine because they claim the information is proprietary, and in recent years their exempt status was reaffirmed under the Bush administration – what a surprise.
Fracking and Trucking
Currently, just about the only thing about fracking that can be agressively regulated is the trucks. Fracking operations can involve a great number of trucks, not only to haul heavy equipment but also for hauling fracking brine and wastewater. The trucks can wreak havoc on local communities that were not designed to accommodate them, by disrupting traffic, destroying roads, and creating air and noise pollution. In a recent crackdown, Pennsylvania inspectors uncovered widespread road safety violations by tanker trucks hauling fracking-related liquids.
EPA is So Fracking Serious
Though the initial request for disclosure is voluntary, the EPA has made it clear that it intends to pursue the issue all the way. In last week’s press release announcing the request, the agency stated that because the industry has already made these disclosures separately to Congress, cooperation is expected. If the drilling companies are not forthcoming, “EPA is prepared to use its authorities to require the information.”
Image: Warning sign for gas operation by Nicholas_T on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.