Risk and Response in Fracturing Policy
89 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2012 Last revised: 27 Jan 2014
Date Written: March 6, 2012
An oil and gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing (also called fracing, fracking, or hydrofracking) has swept the country and has raised the stakes of the energy policy debate. As operators drill thousands of new wells and inject water and chemicals down these wells in order to fracture underground shale and tight sandstone formations, concerned citizens’ groups and the media have pointed to flaming tap water and have worried about chemical contamination; at the same time, industry representatives and many state regulators have sworn that the practice has never contaminated groundwater. The outpouring of attention to injection — just one stage of a complex well development process — threatens to distract from the core issues of “tight” oil and gas development, and to leave the most pressing concerns unaddressed. Through a comparison of regulation and of alleged violations of environmental and oil and gas laws at hydraulically fractured well sites, this Article illuminates the factors that must inform policy and regulatory changes that guide modern oil and gas development. The examples of violations so far suggest that the most pressing risks may predominantly arise not from the injection of chemicals and water underground but from other stages of the well development process introduced by fracturing, and from the higher rate of well drilling spurred by fracturing. This does not suggest that fracturing itself poses no risks. Rather, we must recognize the new risks introduced by several non-injection stages essential to the fracturing process, as well as the drilling enabled by fracturing, and we must shift our attention to the most problematic stages. Chemicals may spill when transported to well sites, and more and new types of wastes must be stored and disposed of, for example. Furthermore, methane may contaminate underground water sources during the drilling process preceding fracturing. If policymakers and regulators allow drilling and fracturing to continue at their current frenzied pace, it is imperative that they change course to recognize and respond to these core risks. The analysis in this Article offers an initial path forward.
Keywords: fracking, fracing, hydrofracking, hydraulic fracturing, state regulation, state enforcement, environmental law, energy law, oil and gas, risk
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