Frack Attack: Interior Department Floats New Regulations
On Friday the U.S. Department of the Interior released new regulations for the oil and natural gas industry, placing restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, the controversial practice of extracting natural gas by drilling and injecting chemicals deep below the Earth’s surface. For the first time, the rules would require that drillers disclose the chemicals they use when “fracking” the ground for natural gas. But, as environmental advocates and some Members of Congress have pointed out, the rule would not require disclosure before these chemicals are pumped into the ground, meaning there is little that homes, communities and water treatment facilities can do to prepare their water supply or infrastructure for dealing with the chemicals during and after fracking takes place. The fact that households and water treatment facilities do not know what chemicals to test for in their water presents a serious obstacle in addressing the environmental and health risks posed by hydraulic fracturing. The rule would fails to close this egregious loophole that has allowed the natural gas industry to remain exempt from disclosure regulations for nearly a decade.
The proposed regulations would also require drillers to obtain a permit to conduct a fracking operation, submit to higher standards for the cement used to encase drilling wells, and conduct a pressure test before injecting high-pressure materials under the ground. Many of these are voluntary practices conducted by drilling companies, but these Interior Department rules would codify them into the federal law books for the first time.
The rules are expected to be finalized by the end of the year, and they are part of a larger battle in determining the role of natural gas in North American energy policy. The EPA recently issued rules that eliminate the natural gas industry’s exemption from parts of the Clean Air Act by limiting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and other toxic air emissions from natural gas drilling wells. The Agency is also currently conducting the first federal research study on hydraulic fracturing and its potential impacts on drinking water resources, the initial findings from which are set to be released in late 2012. Fracking has made huge waves in the Jewish community, with tensions escalating especially after the industry began to expand in gas-rich states like New York and Pennsylvania, which have significant Jewish populations and are home to many Jewish summer camps. In late April, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, a joint instrumentality of the Union for Reform Judaism, its affiliates and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, discussed hydraulic fracturing during its biannual meeting.
After exploring the issue’s implications for North American energy policy and communities across the continent, the CSA adopted a resolution noting the significant environmental and public health concerns at play, calling for an end to environmental regulatory exemptions, and supporting current moratoria in towns, states, and provinces until sufficient regulations are in place. As Jews, we have a long tradition of stewardship going back to the earliest verses of Torah that call on humanity to protect and honor our water, air, and land resources l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. In debates over the role that natural gas and, specifically, hydraulic fracturing play in North American energy and strategic policy, we must live up to these values by ensuring communities are protected by the highest environmental and public health standards. The newly-released Interior Standards are a starting point but not the answer to addressing these concerns.
Image from ProPublica.