By Robert Weiner and Hannah Coombs, assisted by Florian Prommer
Originally Published in The News & Advance, Lynchburg, VA
The White House fracking regulations announced last month appear to curtail environmentally destructive practices while maintaining higher oil production with lower prices. In reality, the regulations, which go into effect June 24, only provide short-term prevention of serious damage. We will be dancing to the joy of cheap oil prices until the wells are drilled dry -- as soon as five years -- and could be facing earthquakes and drinking polluted ground water until then and after.
The Obama administration's rules require disclosing chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, a process of drilling and injecting liquid miles beneath the earth's surface to break down shale rocks used to extract natural gas and shale oil. Currently fracking fluid contains up to 600 hazardous chemicals. West Virginia reported more than 120 cases of fracking-related water contamination in the last four years alone. Larger fracking states like Texas and Pennsylvania have even more.
While the proposal seeks to bring transparency and safer practices to fracking, it maintains last year's decision to allow fracking above the Marcellus Shale in the George Washington National Forest -- with streams providing drinking water to 260,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley. Robert Bonnie, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained this decision as necessary because "the Forest Service allows fracking all over the country" and they "didn't want to make a policy decision or change policy related to fracking." That is complacency at its highest form.
The damage could be irreversible. Only with renewable resources will long-term and permanent solutions solve a snowballing energy crisis. With fracking, the wells will run dry. Allen Gilmer, chairman of Drillinginfo, says traditional fracking wells deplete by 60 to 70 percent in the first year. While a small number of wells have a lifespan of decades, most drop to extreme low levels after only five years. David Hughes, geoscientist and president of Global Sustainability Research, estimates the country will need 6,000 new wells each year, costing $35 billion annually, just to maintain current production levels.
Lower oil prices, profit, and jobs are at the base of fracking support. The administration believes 600,000 fracking jobs will be created by 2020. Gas prices near $2 per gallon are being celebrated by Americans across the nation who remember the $4 prices of a year ago. However, the same number of jobs could be created in eco-friendly solar energy or wind energy, while generating revenue, solidifying fuel independence, and reducing prices through efficiency.
In a period where droughts are devastating the West Coast, 72 trillion gallons of water are needed to operate all fracking wells in the U.S. each year. The process costs $2.4 million per well and has contaminated close to 1,000 wells used for public drinking water. The EPA acknowledges that potential environmental impacts include "contamination of underground sources of drinking water and surface waters resulting from spills, faulty well construction," and "air pollution resulting from the release of volatile organic compounds."
Fort Worth, Texas, is one of the highest producing communities for shale fracking. Last year, the Parr family from Decatur, 40 miles away, won a lawsuit against Aruba Petroleum for 22 contaminated wells emitting toxic air pollutants and diesel exhaust. The University of Texas reported more than 60 tremors near fracking sites active since 2008.
The regulations are not stopping fracking where the damage is greatest. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. and chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, spoke out saying, "This rule does absolutely nothing," He compares the requirements for better well construction and disposal of fluids as "obvious steps" like working steering wheels and brakes in a car.
With no strong regulation of fracking in place and no protection from an approaching disaster of ended supplies and contaminated water, our energy policy remains in free fall. On this issue, Congress is acting like we are in the 1920s, obliviously awaiting another Depression, this time in the form of an energy crisis. Except that this Congress is not prepared for a "New Deal" on energy.
The compromise with leading energy corporations falls short in protecting both the economy and the environment. The nation is desperately overdue for stricter action against fracking while building our alternative clean energy sources.
Ultimately, we will not have a choice.
Weiner was White House spokesman, spokesman for the Government House Operations Committee, and senior staff for Reps. John Conyers, Charles Rangel, Ed Koch, Claude Pepper, and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Coombs is senior policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change. Florian Prommer assisted in this article. They wrote this commentary for The News & Advance.