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Fracking, Regulatory Failure and the Wild West
There are more than 200,000 miles of natural gas pipelines snaking across rural America and not one federal regulator to make sure they don't leak, corrode or explode.
That's the conclusion of a recent Government Accountability Office report that documents a disturbing lack of federal oversight of America's vast network of "gathering" pipelines, which carry natural gas from wellheads to processing facilities. Fracking has exacerbated this problem by causing a massive expansion of gathering pipeline infrastructure, as well as the construction of larger, higher pressure pipelines.
Currently, the federal agency responsible for overseeing these pipelines - the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) - declines to regulate gathering pipelines that are not within 220 yards of at least 10 homes. As a result, only about 10 percent of the country's natural gas pipelines are regulated by the government. The gas industry, which isn't even required to report leaks or ruptures, is responsible for 'regulating' the other 90 percent.
Worse, in many cases, PHMSA doesn't even know where gathering pipelines are located. As suburbs expand and land use patterns shift, pipelines may end up being much closer to densely populated areas than the government realizes. This is a dangerous situation and the potential consequences are deadly serious. For instance, an explosion killed 8 people and destroyed over 100 homes when a San Bruno, California pipeline ruptured in September, 2010.
It's not just the federal government that's failing to protect American citizens from fracking. State governments have also failed to respond to the dramatic changes that fracking has caused in the oil and gas industry.
The California state government, for instance, has no regulations or reporting requirements for fracking even though California has two-thirds of the country's shale oil deposits, making it ripe for fracking. The California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has maintained that fracking is not widespread in the state, stating that it "does not believe that fracking is widely used" and that "the division doesn't believe the practice is nearly as widespread as it is in the Eastern U.S. for shale gas production."
Recently, however, an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report found that fracking has been used in thousands of wells in at least 6 counties for the last 60 years. When confronted with the news, Governor Jerry Brown simply insisted that California's court system was capable of handling any cases of water contamination, and that regulations were unnecessary.
The DOGGR's behavior has been even stranger. Although it insists that fracking isn't widespread in California, the regulatory agency has requested and received $3.2 million to regulate unconventional oil extraction methods like fracking. When the EWG report was released, DOGGR promptly removed all information about fracking from its website.
There is a real human cost to the California state government's antics. Earlier this year, Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) fracked two test wells at one of its oil fields. It didn't bother to tell the people who lived near the wells that it was experimenting with fracking until months after it had completed the job.
It gets worse. The field that PXP fracked happens to be located in the middle of Los Angeles. 300,000 people live within a 3 mile radius of the Inglewood oil field (pictured below), the largest urban oil field in the country. The field, which has been operational for decades, is the subject of a successful lawsuit filed by neighborhood residents who have experienced serious health impacts from toxic air emissions. As a result of the law suit, the court ordered PXP to conduct a study to examine the health impacts of fracking.
This private, court-ordered study will be the first study of fracking's health impacts conducted in the state. Clearly, the DOGGR is asleep at the wheel.
California state legislators are currently trying to pass legislation that would do common sense things like require oil companies to notify property owners before fracking near their land. However, they're facing stiff resistance from the oil industry, especially Halliburton, which already succeeded in killing a disclosure bill last year.
"We support disclosure. We support transparency. We believe in the technology," one audacious industry lobbyist was quoted as saying, but "pre-disclosure is a step too far."
Really? Why? Is it that landowners might resist fracking if they were notified that it was happening near their land? It seems the industry knows what Water Defense has believed for some time now: fracking can only survive as a fly-by-night operation.
This is about more than state regulation. Even where regulations theoretically exist, gas industry cash has managed to create the same Wild West dynamic that exists in California.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Department of Environmental Protection is essentially a PR firm working for the industry. In Dimock, Cabot Oil & Gas contaminated the water of eleven families. The DEP determined that Cabot was responsible for the contamination and ordered it to provide emergency water for the eleven families until a more permanent solution was found.
That all ended, however, when Governor Tom Corbett rode a wave of gas industry money - $1.6 million, to be exact - into office. The DEP quickly cut a deal with Cabot, the water deliveries ended and eleven American families were left wondering where their next glass of clean water would come from.
Things are so bad in PA these days that when Craig Sautner, a Dimock resident whose water was contaminated by Cabot, called the DEP he was threatened with arrest.
The point to all of this is that we can't leave our energy policy up to the fossil fuel industry and its political allies. Regulatory failure is a symptom of a deeper problem: because industry money has corrupted our political process, too many of our politicians put corporate profit over the health and safety of our communities. At every level of government, we have to rethink our priorities and values. Any energy policy that sacrifices thousands of families for Halliburton's bottom line is totally unacceptable. The only alternative is to demand a renewable energy economy.
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