Can Shale Gas Rules Be Strict Enough?

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 17th January 2012

At the root of the resistance against hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in New Brunswick are the environmental, public health and economic risks associated with the natural gas drilling activity. In response to the opposition to drilling, Premier Alward has promised that he wants New Brunswick to have “the strongest shale gas exploration regulations on the continent”. If the regulatory standards include not only exploration but ongoing drilling itself, the government’s promise is striking.

Today, the standards of regulation are notoriously weak in many jurisdictions across North America, and many people complain about a lack of information about drilling practices. In the U.S., a regulatory loophole in the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act prevents the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating fracking. In addition, drilling companies are not required to disclose critical information about their operations. This is beginning to change. In Texas and New York, regulations are undergoing a complete overhaul in response to public demands for better information and improved oversight and enforcement of drilling operations.

In Texas, a premium has been placed on getting better knowledge to the public. As of early 2012, new regulations require drilling operators to report the chemicals used in the fracking process. While the primary concern is that drilling could contaminate drinking water supplies, the practice itself involves drilling deep into the shale rock formation, fracturing the rock with water and chemicals to release the natural gas and disposing of the resulting wastewater that flows back up the well with the gas.

Environmentalists and landowners are eager to learn what acids, hydroxides and other materials have been pumped into specific wells. New regulations also involve the mandatory disclosure of the volume of water needed to frack each well. Experts view this as critical information to evaluate how fracking affects water supplies. Under the new regulations, the public will be able to check a website to review chemical and water disclosures in Texas. The public also wants more information about whether the water comes from aquifers or reservoirs or has been recycled from other fracking operations.

If Texas has already begun changing the rules for drilling, regulations in New York may determine the future of fracking in the U.S. New York congressman Maurice Hinchey is seeking to energize support for much tougher national regulations. In a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Hinchey makes recommendations that he claims must be addressed before New York allows drilling. Many of these recommendations could become part of the regulatory fabric in that state.

Hinchey calls for a cumulative impact analysis of natural gas drilling to understand the full impact drilling could have on New York’s water resources, air quality, local roads and other public infrastructure and an analysis of the potentially negative economic consequences of drilling, such as impacts on tourism and agriculture. He calls for a comprehensive wastewater treatment plan detailing where and how large amounts of flow-back and produced water will be treated or disposed, including how toxic or radioactive contaminants will be removed. Hinchey also calls for a prohibition on the use of toxic chemicals in all fracturing fluids in order to prevent groundwater and surface water contamination. And he calls for a complete ban on land spreading of shale gas drilling waste fluids and a prohibition on the use of reserve pits or centralized impoundments for fracking fluids and flow-back water.

New York’s new rules on drilling may have a domino effect; they clearly will represent the toughest regulations on the continent. Will New Brunswick be able to meet or exceed these regulatory standards or will the bar be set too high? And while regulations may be a necessary condition for the support for shale gas drilling in this province, will they be sufficient to gain the widespread support that will be necessary?

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Filed under economic development, Environment policy, New Brunswick, Social contract

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