Two summers ago, my wife and I took our kids on a camping trip through the Southwest. It’s inspiring for us to see the special places that the Sierra Club and others are working to protect and meeti the people who are making it happen. Plus, taking our kids camping makes the whole family happy.
But besides the stunning beauty of places like Colorado’s Roan Plateau and the colorful mesas near Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, what stood out on that trip was how quickly oil and gas development, much of it driven by fracking, is spreading like a blight across these landscapes. On our first night under the stars, near Canyonlands National Park in Utah, we could actually see the gas flares of nearby drilling operations from our tent.
Fracking is inherently dirty and dangerous. In a review of its records, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that 234 private drinking water wells had been contaminated by drilling and fracking. In Colorado, more than 340 leaks or spills that contaminated groundwater have been reported. In New Mexico, state records document 743 such instances. And those are just the cases we know about. Often when groundwater contamination complaints are filed against oil and gas companies, state agencies refuse to acknowledge that drilling was responsible.
Yet, in spite of fracking’s documented risks, the Obama administration still allows it to occur on our public lands. That means that national treasures like the Greater Canyonlands, where my family was camping by the light of gas flares, are at risk of polluted water and air — not to mention the potent effect of methane emissions on our climate.
Let’s be clear: Fracking shouldn’t be happening, period. But it especially shouldn’t be happening on our public lands and under outdated, inadequate regulations. The oil and gas industry has been transfigured by new fracking technologies, and the regulations have not only failed to keep up, they’ve gotten weaker, thanks to the infamous “Cheney/Halliburton” loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Interior Secretary Jewell herself noted that many of the regulations on the books have not changed since she worked on drilling and fracking operations more than 30 years ago.
In an attempt to address that, the Department of the Interior has finally released new regulations that will apply to fracking on public and private lands where the Bureau of Land Management oversees mineral rights. That includes approximately 750 million acres across 40 states on both public and private lands. Unfortunately, the new rules fall far short of ensuring that the oil and gas industry will even begin to mitigate the significant risks posed by fracking. In fact, they ignore many of the recommendations of the president’s own shale gas advisory committee.
To begin with, the new rules don’t even require nearby water to be tested before fracking operations commence. Without such a baseline test of water quality, fracking operators can argue that the water was already polluted or contaminated before they began drilling. Although that premise might seem laughable, without baseline testing gas companies often refuse to take responsibility for the damage they have caused.
The new rules also fail to ban the practice of adding diesel oil to fracking fluid (again, ignoring the recommendations of the shale gas advisory committee). Diesel contains toxic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene that can contaminate drinking water or create dangerous air pollution.
Another problematic section of the new rules concerns whether companies can claim that their particular mix of toxic fracking chemicals is a trade secret and therefore should be protected from being revealed to the public. The new rules still provide more protection to the polluting companies than to the public, whose health is at risk.
Although strong regulations would certainly be preferable to weak ones, the real solution is to leave dirty fossil fuels like fracked oil and gas in the ground — especially on our irreplaceable public lands. We must prioritize clean, renewable energy, maximize efficiency, and go “all in” on modern energy solutions. Because let’s face it, being able to take your kids places where the brightest things they’ll see in the night sky will be the moon and stars is important. Being able to drink water and breathe air that doesn’t make you sick is essential.