While the federal government has done almost nothing to regulate fracking and has deferred to individual states, we are beginning to see exemplary rules passed in other states, most notably Montana’s neighbors Wyoming and Colorado, that can guide Montana in managing the impact of fracking on the Beartooth Front.
In neighboring North Dakota, we’ve seen what a lack of regulation can do. Oil companies have been allowed to have their way in the Bakken, and the results have been devastating to the land and the people.
Here are some recommendations for regulations based on the best of what is happening elsewhere:
- Require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. This should be common sense. If we’re going to allow companies to put chemicals in the ground, we need to be able to trace pollution in groundwater, streams and land back to the fracking chemicals that caused it. Wyoming became the first state to require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking in 2010, but oil companies have challenged these rules based on trade secret protections in the Wyoming Constitution. The case is currently being heard in the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The trade secret loophole is a dodge for Halliburton (a party in the suit to block the Wyoming regulations) and others who are challenging this rule. The environmental rights of landowners need to trump dubious trade secret claims.
- Allow frequent testing of wells. Landowners should be allowed to test their wells prior to fracking, and then re-test after fracking to test for pollution. These tests can be expensive, and companies should pay the cost rather than dump that cost on landowners who have been hurt by the pollution.
- When testing shows that fracking has caused pollution, companies should be required to clean it up quickly. Standards for response prevent companies from delaying cleanups for lengthy periods.
- When spills occur, they need to be reported to the public. The Associated Press reported last month that nearly 300 oil pipeline spills have occurred in less than two years without being reported to the public. These spills were among the 750 “oil field incidents” that have occurred since January 2012. The public needs to be informed when spills occur. In the most egregious example reported by the AP, a massive spill was discovered in northwestern North Dakota by a wheat farmer, and nobody said anything for 11 days until the AP asked about it. California has proposed a state web site to report spills, which should be part of Montana’s plans as well.
- Companies need to demonstrate that the mechanical integrity of wells exists before fracking begins, and to continuously monitor and record pressure and water isolation. The danger here is that fracking wastewater, which can be toxic and leak into the soil if mechanical integrity is not maintained. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed mechanical integrity regulation for fracking on federal lands.
- The process of “flaring,” the burning off of gas into the atmosphere, needs to be tightly controlled. According to Ceres, a non-profit advocating sustainability leadership, in North Dakota, nearly 30% of gas is currently being flared. Flaring should be regulated to stop within a year after a well starts producing. North Dakota has established a toothless goal of 10% flaring with no regulatory backup other than tax incentives for the oil companies.
- There need to be strong rules controlling methane. Methane leakage can wipe out the advantages natural gas has as a cleaner fuel than coal. According to the Environmental Defense Fund:
Natural gas produces half the carbon dioxide (CO2) of coal when combusted and offers advantages for local and regional air quality compared to coal, since it emits far fewer ozone precursors and sulfur oxides and almost no particulate matter or mercury. This inherent carbon benefit of natural gas can be undermined by leakage of methane throughout the natural gas supply chain, including during production activities. Methane is at least 28 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over the longer term and at least 84 times more potent in the near term. Likewise, oil and gas operations are the largest source of man-made volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in Colorado, contributing to smog formation.
Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado proposed new rules last week that would be the most advanced in the nation in controlling methane. Key elements of the proposed Colorado rules include:
- Establishing rules to directly regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas production sector.
- Establishing the most robust rules of any state for reducing “fugitive” emissions by requiring operators to perform frequent leak checks and quickly repair them.
- Strengthening rules for controlling methane and ozone precursors from storage tanks and other equipment.
I welcome responses from others.