[OPINION] Fracking the Law

By Sharon Guynup

New York State’s contentious 2010 moratorium on natural gas drilling currently remains in place, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo launching a new health study, and the state Supreme Court upholding municipalities’ rights to ban drilling within their borders.

However, New York’s caution stands in stark contrast to the natural gas “gold rush” underway in 30 other states. Next door, in Pennsylvania, the legislature passed a 2012 law forbidding towns from regulating fracking, which was then overturned by the courts. Five Delaware Valley towns quickly asserted their “home rule” rights and prohibited the controversial hydraulic fracturing drilling technology.

Across the nation, many communities are pushing back, viewing themselves as the last line of defense, protecting their citizens against state and federal failures to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technology blasts millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand underground to release oil and gas from shale bedrock.

“The U.S. faces a crisis in the enforcement of rules governing the oil and gas industry,” states a new report by Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project. Their study, which analyzed government data from six heavily-fracked states, discovered that all failed to enforce existing drilling regulations. Between 53 and 91 percent of wells go uninspected; violations go unrecorded, with few penalties.

Only four of 31 fracking states even have significant drilling rules. The fracking industry – unlike any other in America – also remains exempt from Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water and Clean Air Acts, hazardous waste disposal and other federal regulations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has conclusively proven that fracking contaminated an aquifer in Pavilion, WY, refuting longstanding industry claims that the process doesn’t pollute drinking water.

Municipalities are increasingly concerned over local health and economic impacts from frack water and air pollution. Drillers transform quiet rural communities into industrial zones with wells, waste ponds, smog, roaring compressors and heavy truck traffic.

In Ohio, a grassroots “limited home rule” campaign seeks to regulate drilling by drafting community noise limits, designating operating hours, and limiting truck routes and drilling waste shipments. The strategy would, in theory, supersede Ohio Department of Natural Resources authority over drilling, passing it back to municipalities.

Cincinnati, Athens and at least 30 other Ohio communities have passed statutes to regulate or ban fracking. In Broadview Heights – an upscale city dotted with 90 wells – a “charter amendment” on the November ballot would ban future drilling, citing citizens’ rights to clean air, clean water, clean soil and a sustainable energy future.

Not one state, nor the federal government, currently requires drillers to disclose “proprietary” drilling formulas, which include hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals. Drillers pumped 780 million gallons underground from 2005-2009 containing about 750 different chemicals.

A new Pennsylvania law demonstrates how states favor drillers: companies there are now required to reveal “trade secret” chemicals to physicians, but doctors must first sign a confidentiality agreement. Ohio’s new fracking rules include a similar provision.

In August, Wilkes-Barre physician Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the frack “gag rule” violates his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, preventing communication with “patients, colleagues, medical researchers and the public regarding the identity and amount of chemicals, and the health hazards they present to the community.”

The root of the regulatory breakdown lies with elected officials who take hefty campaign contributions from frackers – then pass industry-friendly rules. The oil and gas industry has already handed at least $30 million in 2012 campaign contributions to members of Congress and fossil fuel political action committees. A current flag-waving “Vote 4 Energy” TV ad boasts job creation, though most frack jobs are short-term and go to out-of-state, transient workers – often attracting drugs, prostitution and crime to communities.

Environmental and campaign finance laws must change. Federal and state laws need to place health – and a healthy environment – above limitless economic growth and corporate profits while trampling the rights of citizens and communities.

The European REACH system offers a good model, requiring companies – not governments – to prove that the chemicals they produce or use are safe. The oil and gas industry must similarly prove that fracking is safe: no data, no drilling.

This November, examine your candidates’ funders. Are they working for big oil and gas? Or are they working to keep you and your family healthy and safe, while promoting our nation’s clean energy needs?

Sharon Guynup’s writing has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Syndicate, Scientific American, The Boston Globe, and nationalgeographic.com. © Blue Ridge Press 2012 Send comments to: scherer@blueridgepress.com.

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