Natural gas production is environmentally damaging and harms public health.
The most common means of extracting natural gas today uses high-pressure horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (also called hydrofracking, or fracking). Fracking involves injecting millions of gallons of chemically treated water underground to break up shale formations and release natural gas. It occurs with little or outdated regulation from states and with significant exemptions from federal rules, including aspects of the Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, and Clean Air acts. Both federal and state agencies lack adequate staff for monitoring and enforcement, to the extent that some states cannot pinpoint the number of active fracking projects within their borders. We do not have an effective regulatory system in this country to address the risks that gas drilling poses to our health and our communities.
Enacting Strict Safeguards
The environmental community must redouble its efforts to compel regulatory agencies and the gas industry to clean up natural gas production. We must promote tough federal and state safeguards and repeal the numerous federal exemptions that the natural gas industry enjoys. We must also support local communities that wish to restrict gas development and ensure that gas development is not allowed in areas that are environmentally inappropriate. Working hand-in-hand with our local groups, state chapters and national staff, the Sierra Club is leveraging its full capacity to enact strict protections state by state.
Some chapters have identified specific municipalities where they support local bans, such as Fort Collins, Colorado. We also advocate for keeping larger regional areas such as the Delaware River basin off-limits to drilling. Additionally, where fracking legislation has passed, we've successfully blocked some of the most devastating impacts, such as the removal of home rule as part of Act 13 in Pennsylvania. Through the time and effort of staff, volunteers, and our legal department, removal of home rule was deemed unconstitutional, preserving the right of local communities to regulate activities within their boundaries.
This truly is a watershed moment in environmental history. Significant environmental activism around the country is turning the tide. Empowered, locally led, broad-based community, statewide, and national organizations working in coalition are now seen as credible opponents to the gas industry. We are changing the public misconception that fracked gas is clean. Natural gas is just another dirty, dangerous fossil fuel that will divert us from the path to clean energy, sound economics, and healthy communities.
Protecting Precious Places
With little in its way, the natural gas industry is set on fracking our country's most precious jewels: national and state parks, state forests, and important drinking water supply areas. At the same time, communities across the country are speaking out to stop fracking at the local and state level, demanding that our air, water, and communities should not be sacrificed.
Pennsylvania has already begun to drill its state forests, exposing the land and surrounding communities to the damaging effects of fracking. At the same time, the state has tried to strip take away municipal rights governing gas development (Act 13 fact sheet). Other states like Ohio are not far behind. New Yorkers continue to battle over whether to keep the state entirely off limits to drilling. Sierra Club chapters all over the country are advocating for moratoria and local bans, as well as opposing more gas development since adequate protections are not in place.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed new rules for oil and gas development that would apply to over 750 million acres in the United States. The federal government has the authority to put in place commonsense fracking rules that better protect our land, air, and water, while also placing important places entirely off limits to drilling. The federal government should be setting the bar high with extremely tough standards, while requiring strong, effective monitoring and enforcement of these rules.
Closing Industry Loopholes
The oil and gas industries are exempt from key provisions of seven major federal environmental laws, allowing the industry to get away with practices that are illegal for others. The natural gas industry exploits these loopholes, tearing up the landscape and contaminating our air and water without being held accountable. The natural gas industry is exempt from aspects of:
- The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was established to protect America's drinking water from being contaminated. However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 -- also known as the "Halliburton Loophole" – exempted fracking from SDWA oversight, leaving drinking water sources in the 34 oil-and-gas-producing states unprotected from the host of toxic chemicals used during fracking, while exempting the industry from being held accountable for its pollution.
- The Clean Air Act (CAA), adopted in 1970, is the comprehensive federal law that regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile pollution sources. Unfortunately, the CAA exempts oil and gas wells from controlling toxic air emissions by preventing the aggregation of multiple sources of pollution -- for example, multiple wells on one well pad. This lack of aggregation allow multiple facilities to operate in a small area, in some cases emitting large quantities of toxic air pollution, while going largely unregulated by the CAA.
- The Clean Water Act (CWA), enacted in 1972, establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States. Exemptions granted in 1987, and amended during the 2005 Energy Policy Act, define sediment as a nonpollutant and exempt oil and gas construction activities from storm-water permitting, leaving streams unprotected from the sediment runoff caused by the construction and operation of well pads, pipelines, drill rigs, and other infrastructure.
- The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) adopted in 1976, is the principal federal law that governs the disposal of solid and hazardous wastes. The law takes a cradle-to-grave approach to ensure that wastes are handled properly from the point of creation to transport to disposal. In 1980, Congress exempted oil field wastes (which include waste from natural gas production) from the RCRA and gave authority to states to regulate these wastes. This exemption leaves produced water, drilling fluids, and hydraulic fracturing fluids from oil and gas production unregulated under the nation's premier hazardous waste law. The Sierra Club supports the work of our coalition allies by petitioning the EPA to begin regulation of hazardous wastes from oil and gas development under the RCRA.
- The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund law, makes companies liable for a spill or release of a hazardous substance into the environment. Included in the list of hazardous substances under CERCLA are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (Btex). Yet CERCLA exempts these chemicals when they are found in crude oil or petroleum, which are both widely used in natural gas production. The definition of a hazardous substance under CERCLA also excludes natural gas, natural gas liquids, liquefied natural gas, and synthetic gas usable for fuel.
- The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established the broad national framework for protecting our environment. NEPA stipulates that the federal government must give proper consideration to potential environmental impacts before undertaking any major federal action. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 stripped NEPA's strong requirements for public involvement and environmental review of several oil-and-gas-related activities, instead stipulating that they should be analyzed and processed by the departments of Interior and Agriculture under a much narrower and weaker process known as Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In 2006 and 2007, the BLM granted this exemption to about 25 percent of all oil and gas wells approved on public lands in the West.
- The Toxic Release Inventory of EPCRA (TRI) was created by section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. It requires most industries to report significant releases of toxic substances to the EPA, which then aggregates and disseminates the information to the public. However, despite the use of toxic chemicals throughout production, oil and gas facilities are not required to report to the TRI. This exemption leaves communities in oil- and gas-producing areas in the dark about what chemicals are being released -- making it difficult to attribute responsibility and seek remedy for resulting health and environmental problems. The Sierra Club and our coalition allies petitioned the EPA in 2012 to regulate oil and gas chemical releases under the TRI.