By Tom Kenworthy
The head of the Natural Resources Defense Council appeared before a Senate committee looking into the implications of the nation’s shale gas revolution yesterday. Frances Beinecke issued a compelling appeal for tougher federal oversight of the oil and gas industry and its drilling practices that have raised widespread concerns about public health and safety.
“I have never seen a single issue that has frightened, antagonized and activated people across this country like the practice of fracking,” NRDC president Beinecke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Referring to the industry practice of stimulating oil and gas production by injecting a mix of chemicals, water and sand into underground rock formations, Beinecke said:
“Families are angered and frustrated by their inability to control fracking in their towns, and sometimes on their own property. They want to know that their water is safe, their air is clean and their lands and farms are protected. They want to know their children are healthy.”
Beinecke’s comments captured a troubling truth for the oil and gas industry, which to a large extent has been caught off guard by the mounting public hostility to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is now used in the vast majority of drilling operations and has opened up vast new domestic reserves of oil and gas previously locked in shale formations. As Beinecke noted, a December Bloomberg poll found that 66 percent of U.S. respondents believe there should be more aggressive government oversight of fracking, a majority that surged by ten points in just the previous three months.
While the industry favors the current patchwork of state regulation, Beinecke said states have neither the technical ability nor the political will to adequately protect the public from ill effects of drilling that can include air and groundwater pollution, hazardous wastes, and carbon pollution from methane leaks.
In addition, as other groups like the Center for American Progress have pointed out, Beinecke said that numerous oil and gas exemptions from bedrock national environmental laws make federal oversight also insufficient. “There is simply no justification for exempting fracking from the basic environmental laws that have applied to other industrial activities for four decades,” she said in written testimony, noting exemptions enjoyed by oil and gas from statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act among others.
She also called on the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees drilling on some 700 million acres of federal land and other properties where the federal government controls the mineral rights, to toughen pending fracking rules that now appear to be in the process of getting watered down. The BLM, she said, “may be going in exactly the wrong direction.”
That concern was also raised last week by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate energy panel. In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Wyden urged that he ensure a “properly constructed rule with sound requirements for public disclosure, well integrity, and monitoring.”
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.