The drilling method called hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is largely exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act because of legislation passed in 2005 that came to be called the Halliburton Loophole. Vice President Dick Cheney—the former CEO and chairman of Halliburton—pushed through the exemption, which was controversial then and remains so now. Fracking is also exempt from important parts of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Fracking did not show up on the radar of residents of the Upper Delaware Valley until land men started knocking on landowner’s doors in 2008 and offering gas leases. That’s when the debate over the safety and reliability of fracking erupted. The debate continued as fracked wells in Pennsylvania helped push the United States into becoming a leading producer of natural gas. In 2018, 90% of the natural gas used in the U.S. was produced here, and the country is now a net exporter of natural gas after being a net importer for 75 years.
Still, while natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it emits greenhouse gases, and leaking methane from gas infrastructure is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. With triple-digit temperatures breaking records in Europe, and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declaring June to have been the hottest global average temperature for that month since records began 140 years ago, the debate about fracking is ongoing.
On July 25, Rep. Matt Cartwright (PA-08) introduced two pieces of legislation that would end a couple of the exemptions that frackers now enjoy. The first bill, known as the “Closing Loopholes and Ending Arbitrary and Needless Evasion of Regulations” or CLEANER Act, would eliminate the exemption of frackers and oil and gas companies in general from the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act.
The second bill is called the Focused Reduction of Effluence and Stormwater runoff through Hydrofracking Environmental Regulation, or FRESHER Act. It would end the exemption from the Clean Water Act.
The bills are two out of five that together are called the FRACK Pack. Two of the other bills in the group would end exemptions to the Clean Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act. The final bill would require oil and gas companies to perform baseline water testing on nearby properties before drilling operations begin, to make it easier for members of the community to determine if any contamination is connected to a drilling operation.
“Northeastern Pennsylvania is blessed with abundant natural resources, water streams and wildlife, and it’s important that we preserve them for future generations,” Cartwright said. “These bills will close damaging loopholes in current legislation to ensure dangerous pollutants don’t seep into our waterways and our land.”
While Cartwright wants to ensure that frackers are well-regulated, many others want to see fracking and any use of fossil fuels fade into history. Gov. Andrew Cuomo with much fanfare, signed into law last week what he termed the most “aggressive climate law” in the United States. The legislation is called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), and it requires that all electricity in the state is produced with zero emissions by 2040.
At the signing ceremony, Cuomo said, “Climate change is an undeniable scientific fact, period. To deny climate change is to deny reality—all credible scientists agree. Yet the president of the United States denies it. Why? Because it is not politically convenient for him to acknowledge the reality, fossil fuels represent major industries in this country and because change is hard and change causes disruption, and the political system abhors disruption. But despite the president’s denial of the obvious, the American chorus demanding acknowledgment of the crises is now deafening. And we are overpowering the forces that are vested in the status quo.”
And yet, despite New York’s state-wide ban on fracking, the energy companies’ victory over the fracked-gas fueled Competitive Power Ventures power plant in Orange County, aided by the construction of the compressor station in Eldred that seems just about complete, locks in a new fossil fuel-burning plant for who knows how long.
It is nevertheless hopeful that forward motion on the matter in New York State is taking place, and that Cartwright and others in Washington D.C. recognize the dangers of fracking—but don’t expect action at the federal level with the current balance in the Senate and with the current occupants of the White House.
As recently as April, the Environmental Protection (EPA) agency decided to study the issue of the chemical–laden 2.4 billion gallons of wastewater, that should be classified as toxic waste but are not, that flow from U.S. oil and gas wells. EPA officials decided there was no need for them to regulate that wastewater.