A Timid First Step: Obama’s Proposed Fracking Rules Don’t Go Nearly Far Enough

If there’s anything we’ve learned in the last couple of years since the word “fracking” entered our lexicon, it’s this: Natural gas drillers don’t want you to know what they’re up to. From the Oklahoma prairie to the forests of Pennsylvania, from the moment they get your name on a lease until the last tank of wastewater is dumped, these energy giants go to remarkable lengths to keep the public in the dark. In the heart of Marcellus Shale country in Pennsylvania, the drillers force property owners to sign non-disclosure agreements that’s made it hard for residents to go public after they’re learned that their well water’s been polluted or that so much methane is seeping up from the fractured earth that they can light their faucet with a match. And recently it’s gotten even worse: Pennsylvania actually enacted a law that muzzles doctors who treat patients who’ve been sickened by pollution from fracking. This gag-order rule means that doctors who learn information about potentially health-threatening chemicals that gas drillers are using in their community are strictly forbidden from sharing what they’ve learned with other doctors or with the general public. That’s unbelievable. OK, actually it is believable when you realize how deeply the Big Gas companies have the politicians tucked into their back pocket.

With so many state legislatures and governors in bed with the fracking industry, especially after the Tea Party-flavored GOP surge in the 2010 elections, environmentalists have looked to the Obama administration and federal regulators as a possible source of sanity, to keep drinking water safe in the face of this onslaught from the industry and their political allies. So far, the Obama administration has been way too easy to roll, under pressure from Republican lawmakers and the well-heeled energy lobbyists. Just look at what happened down in Texas the other day when a video was posted of a mid-level administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency  — Dr. Al Armendariz –who used harsh language to describe how the EPA ought to treat polluters like the frackers who’d made a mass of drinking water and the air in the small town of Dish, Tex. Angry Republican lawmakers forced the dismissal of this hard-working regulator. The polluters? They’re still on the job.

Now comes the latest and lamest example of Obama administration timidity toward fracking. Back in February, the U.S. Interior Department proposed a rule that actually had some teeth: For the first time would require the gas drillers to disclose the chemicals they used when they were fracking a new well anywhere on the 700 million acres controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management or an additional 56 million acres of Indian lands. The frackers would have had to make that information public 30 days before they began drilling. Now, most fracking — about 90 percent of it — takes place on private land and is regulated by the states, not by the feds. Still, it was a positive step that not only would have immediately affected 10 percent of all gas drilling but also would have set a strong example for the states.

Well, I don’t have to tell you what happened next: The Big Oil lobby and their legislative lap dogs went to work, whining about the proposal and claiming that the added paperwork would impede their work and slow down the fracking gold rush that’s taking place in areas like rural Pennsylvania. And it took little more than two months for Obama’s federal regulators to cave in. The revised rules were announced on a Friday – the traditional weekend dumping ground for news that government doesn’t want to make a big splash in the media. The new requirement that would take effect at the end of the year now says frackers won’t have to disclose the drilling chemicals until after they’re done with a well — in other words, until after our communities have been exposed to a mystery brew of hazardous chemicals. Families could be drinking tainted well water for years before they had any clue of the dangers that they were being exposed to.

Those of us who’ve been fighting an uphill battle for tougher fracking laws in the country are disappointed and dismayed. Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette told a rally at the Colorado statehouse earlier this week that the Interior Department rules were “seriously inadequate.” She added: “We’re all seeking common-sense solutions to ensure the
safety of natural gas production, but with all due respect, requiring disclosure after fracking has already occurred seems less common-sense and more ‘closing the door after the horse has left the barn.’”

I couldn’t agree more. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a mad rush to drill as many holes in the ground as quickly as possible, with scarcely a thought to the consequences. We’ve already seen the frackers ship water tainted with radioactivity to overwhelmed local sewage plants, and destroy local creeks in their haste to get new wells up and running. And those are just the short-term consequences. Recently, researchers at Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund reported that natural-gas drilling is releasing methane into the atmosphere at a rate of twice what the EPA has estimated. This could have serious consequences in our battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate change. And yet this nation is too timid to even ask the frackers to fill out a disclosure slip before they drill under the earth.

That’s sad, and alarming. The public needs to let members of Congress know that these tepid new federal rules simply don’t cut it, and that the Obama administration needs to go back to the drawing board. More importantly, we need to step up the fight for tougher fracking laws in the statehouses where most of the real action takes place. The Big Gas companies are never going to support our right to know what they are really doing. Only we can make that happen.

For an in-depth look at how gas drillers silence property owners and physicians, read this http://truth-out.org/news/item/9004-silencing-communities-how-the-fracking-industry-keeps-its-secrets

Here’s a closer look at how the gas lobbyists have pressured federal lawmakers and regulators: http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/271-38/11336-focus-petro-plutocracy

To learn more about the new Interior Department proposal and the reaction, read this: http://www.omglobe.com/2012/05/05/science-news/us-proposes-more-fracking-disclosure/

To read about the new research into fracking and the release of methane into the atmosphere, go here: http://www.psmag.com/environment/could-natural-gas-leaks-blow-away-its-green-advantage-42106/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

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