If you’re not familiar with the practice of fracking, here’s a quick primer. Let’s say you want to get at some natural gas that’s locked in a shale deposit, and the only way you can jiggle it loose is to ram millions of gallons of chemical brine down there. If an aquifer is involved you’ve got the potential for polluting any drinking water that happens to be in the neighborhood – and there’s practically nothing to stop you, because fracking is generally exempt from the Clean Water Act and other regulations. Well it looks like the party might finally be winding down…
Department of Justice Backs up EPA on Fracking
Last week, the Department of Justice filed a complaint against a gas drilling company, seeking to enforce an emergency order that EPA had issued to protect families with private wells in Parker County, Texas. Tests had confirmed that methane, benzene, and other pollutants were showing up in their water, and the problems – including “flammable, bubbling water” coming out of taps – began shortly after the company started “well stimulation” operations nearby. The company denied that its activities caused the problems (note: EPA didn’t specify how the company’s gas got into peoples’ wells, just that it got there) and refused to comply with an order to investigate the extent of the contamination.
Stockholders Ask About Fracking
It’s one thing to ignore the EPA, but getting the Department of Justice involved takes it up to another level altogether. Another push in the right direction is coming from investors. Just this week, five investment groups filed resolutions with ExxonMobil, Chevron, and seven other major oil and gas companies to disclose the risks – including financial risks – associated with fracking, and to take steps to mitigate and remediate environmental impacts. One of the investment groups is the Office of the Comptroller of New York State, reflecting the state’s concerns that fracking could contaminate major water supplies.
A Long Road Ahead
The involvement of investors could play a key role over the next couple of years. Despite recent steps in the right direction, federal regulators may be forced to back off because the new Congress has clearly indicated its unwillingness to regulate fracking. That might stall progress on the regulatory front, but with the investment community taking a stand — well, as Yogi Berra would say, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Image: Tap water by AMagill 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+.