I loved watching Josh Fox's (Gasland filmmaker) presentation on You Tube last week at the New York hearing on hydraulic fracturing. I was cheering him on from my desk in Durango, Colorado, as he challenged the notion that oil and gas regulation is an answer to the impacts caused by reckless oil and gas development across the United States.
In my 23 years working with communities directly affected by oil and gas development, those fossil fuels have never been developed without impacts to our land, air, and water. Not surprising: they are inherently dirty energy sources when it comes to extraction and production, and the industry always puts profit before protection.
That said, it is our mission here at Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project to do all we can to protect communities that are threatened with and living in the midst of the kind of energy development that unfortunately (and at least for now) dominates the nation’s economy and infrastructure and on which we are all dependent.
We do this by engaging and providing factual information to regulatory agencies, companies, and those who live with extraction in order to minimize, and whenever possible, prevent, negative impacts from occurring in the first place. Sometimes this requires a hard push to strengthen oil and gas regulations that are designed to protect human health and the environment. And sometimes it works.
New Mexico's Pit Rule is an example of a new regulation we promoted that has made a profound difference to a state that has tens of thousands of oil and gas wells and will face new development for decades to come. Since the Pit Rule was implemented in 2008, there hasn't been a reported case of water or soil contamination from oil and gas waste pits.
Many companies have retooled and are using only closed-loop or pitless drilling systems even in areas where this practice is not required. Why? It's cheaper; it costs about 20% less to use a closed-loop system instead of a conventional drilling system with a pit. In addition, it minimizes the footprint of a gas well and eliminates company liability when a pit causes soil and water contamination. Cleaning up a failed pit can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and restoring water quality after it has been polluted due to tears and improper installation–can be impossible.
Hard-won regulations like the Pit Rule are a small piece of the puzzle in the constant and difficult fight to not only require, but achieve, mandatory best practices and real protections for people and air and water quality – – all in the face of a powerful and highly polluting industry.
Yet if we stop fighting for such measures, we abandon communities in the gas patch and lose a key mechanism to hold companies accountable for the harm they cause. And regulations like well setbacks from homes and streams, light and noise limits, and use of emission preventers and non-toxic fracturing fluids can prevent companies from being able to drill anywhere, anytime, and at little cost to themselves.
Is developing oil and gas a good idea? Oil and gas development has transformed vast areas of our country into industrial energy sacrifice zones. Wells are being drilled in people's backyards, ranches, farms, sacred areas, next to schools, and in watersheds that provide drinking water and wildlife habitat. The very few profit on the backs of hard-working Americans and at the expense of our shared climate and the expansion of sustainable communities and agriculture.
Josh Fox is right to draw a line in the sand and say “Not here. Not in New York.”
For the first time in our nation's history, many people are questioning whether developing more polluting fossil fuels (from shale gas to tar sands to ever-more coal) is the right thing to do. And the industry’s track record has been abysmal; as Josh says, drilling has never been proven safe, and it may never be. I know that it certainly won t as long as industry continues to obstruct attempts to adequately study and regulate its activities, and as long as it is allowed in the absence of strong enforcement–to essentially police itself.
In the meantime, for those of us who live with oil and gas development, it's not a lot to ask that companies fully comply with all parts of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air and Water Acts, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and to stop obstructing efforts to update and strengthen state regulations. This is why Earthworks and its allies will continue to push for the end of oil and gas exemptions (by passing the FRAC and BREATHE Acts in Congress), expose the impacts of the oil and gas industry, support communities, and help achieve a cleaner, healthier energy future.