Last summer Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection revealed that in 245 cases it had “determined that a private water supply was impacted by oil and gas activities.” Not too long after that, a joint study from the British Geological Survey and Durham University reported water contamination associated with 6% of Pennsylvania’s gas wells. There have been at least 122 complaints about water contamination in West Virginia. There is, as yet, no fracking in the neighboring state of Maryland, which also sits on the Marcellus Shale. The citizens of this region have raised concerns about the impact development would have on “public health, the environment and quality of life.” Governor Martin O’Malley (D) responded with an interim moratorium. Maryland’s Departments of Environment and Natural Resources have been studying fracking operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for over three years. They have just released a report about how fracking “can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment, and natural resources.” These are the strongest fracking rules in America.
“These rules are very strong, but there is always room for improvement and what I would like to see is what is going to be their policy for enforcing these regulations,” said Amanda Frank, Policy Analyst for the Center for Effective Government. “It’s one thing to have good regulations, but are you going to have inspectors as well to make sure that industry is in compliance? And if industry has a spill or accident, are you going to enforce the penalty?”
It has yet to be determined if the proposals made in the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study will be adopted and, if adopted, there is no guarantee they will be enforced. Governor O’Malley’s term is coming to an end. In January a new governor will be sworn in. Larry Hogan is a Republican who is both a skeptic on the issue of climate change and a proponent of the gas industry. These proposed rules will not go into effect until Hogan is in office. There have been a lot of complaints from the LNG industry and the Governor-elect’s views on this study are not known.
“Anytime you propose new regulations on any sort of industry there are a lot of complaints by industry lobbyists,” said Frank. “Look at the car industry, you have regulations for seat belts, you have regulations for air bags, for test crashing and all this kind of stuff, but they haven’t stopped the automobile industry from making cars. I’d like to see a cost/benefit analysis of fracking rules. Is this actually going to have an (adverse) effect? And then what are the public health benefits that are going to protect workers, going to protect people and going to protect the environment.”
(The number of worker deaths in North Dakota has doubled since 2007, which Frank said is roughly when the fracking boom began.)
“This plan will identify where the well sites are going to be. How are the roads getting in there? What is going to happen five years from now?” said Frank.
Operators must also conduct at least two years of baseline monitoring of ground and surface water near well sites before they are issued a permit. They will have to continue monitoring in order to determine whether their operations are at fault when there are reports of water contamination.
“You might have seen the film Gasland, where folks will turn on their taps and light the water on fire because of methane contamination, but unless operators have actually done pretesting of this water you really can’t say fracking did it,” said Frank. “You might be absolutely sure, but you don’t have the scientific evidence.”
This testing will enable people to know if fracking was the cause when incidents occur.
Another of Maryland’s bests practices may be ensuring that fracking wells are set back at least 1,000 feet from buildings and 2,000 feet from private drinking water wells. In some states fracking wells have been allowed as close as 150 feet from a home, which can result in a lot of noise and life disturbance. The toxins that come out of the ground can be a public health issue.
“I don’t know that a 2,000 foot setback would completely cut out cases of water contamination, but its a better practice than what is happening in other states and can hopefully reduce those instances,” said Frank.
Operators must give Maryland’s Department of the Environment the name and concentration of every chemical brought to the well site. There have been a lot of loopholes to this requirement in other states. In Maryland, operators can submit a less extensive list, describing the chemicals but not quantities or brand names. The Department of the Environment has to know what the chemicals are, and how to deal with them if there are any incidents.
“We have required food labeling in this country for many years and no one can look at a can of coke, see what’s in that coke and then go home and make it in their kitchen,” said Frank. “Unfortunately that loophole has existed and a lot of companies have got away with not saying what they are using and then not having to substantiate that claim.”
Though federal law allows operators to use diesel if they take out a permit, many operators do not bother to take one out. Frank said that a recent study found that during the past four and a half years, over 350 fracking wells had done this.
“Maryland would require a list of every chemical that you bring to the site, which is really important because there can be some creative innovations on well sites. You might be expecting to use one substance but you have another chemical with you and you throw it in. Let’s see what happens? Will this work? So any chemical that comes through the site must be listed, even if you don’t intend to use it for fracking. There’s still a chance that you may or it may leak.”
Diesel would be banned from use as a fracking fluid. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans,” and the US Environmental Protection Agency states the exhaust is “likely to be carcinogenic.”
“Inject that underground and there is an increased risk of groundwater contamination that could have serious public health effects,” said Frank.
She added, “On a point by point basis, natural gas does burn cleaner than oil or coal, however you have methane emissions and methane is actually a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon is. So it really offsets any benefit that you have on burning gas over oil.”
“In the past it was commonplace to just vent off methane, now there is an increased focus on what can we do to prevent those leaks and what can we do to patch that gap,” said Frank.
Maryland’s operators will be required to calculate their emissions and, if they have emissions, offset them.
Another Maryland innovation is noise bylaws similar to what currently exists in urban areas. This allows noises of up to 75 dBA during the day in residential areas and 55 dBA at night, when people are trying to sleep (page 28 of the attached).
The environmental community’s reception to the Maryland study is mixed. Some do not want fracking allowed under any circumstances. Others believe that with an incoming governor who is a huge proponent of the gas industry, it is better to put the best possible legislation in place to protect the public.
“These regulations will lower the rate of instances, but you are always going to have room for error,” said Frank.
One of the key questions is, at what level is the risk acceptable?
Note on images above:
- US EIA Map of Maryland, showing gas and oil deposits in the West
- Derrick and platform of drilling gas wells in Marcellus Shale — Pennsylvania — courtesy Ruhrfisch (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Setback chart courtesy (draft) Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study
- Fracking a well virtually in someone’s backyard. It is a very noisy operation courtesy Jeremy Buckingham (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Maximum allowable Noise Levels — Courtesy (draft) Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study