By Tom Means, Center for Rural Affairs
A dangerous process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made natural gas extraction economical in areas where it was formerly unreachable. The process involves pressurized fluid used to fracture layers of rock, releasing natural gas to the surface. Many of the chemicals used in the fluid are potential dangers to human health, and some are carcinogens. About thirty percent of the chemicals used for fracking routinely remain underground after drilling, but for some operations this number can reach eighty percent or higher, potentially effecting area water quality.
Currently, no comprehensive set of national standards exists for disposal of wastewater discharged from fracking. Despite the clean energy potential of natural gas, such rules are needed to address contamination and ensure that mining companies account for the social and environmental externalities resulting from natural gas extraction.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to develop national standards for the disposal of wastewater from natural gas drilling. We wholeheartedly agree. New rules would likely require wastewater to be treated at a federally regulated facility before reaching state-regulated municipal sewage systems for final processing. The EPA plans to further assess the issue amongst stakeholders before setting final regulations in 2014.
Given the severity of the issue, a unified, federal set of standards for fracking has merit if executed properly. New standards should call for an efficient method of wastewater disposal, with safety being the primary emphasis.
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