America Risks Wasting Fracking’s Potential

Hydraulic fracking holds so much promise for generating inexpensive, relatively clean energy. But first, we need to figure out how to regulate it.
January 2014
AP/David Smith
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Late this past summer, my senior biking club pedaled our way 120 miles along the spectacular Pine Creek Rail Trail in north central Pennsylvania’s Tioga County. We stopped in Wellsboro, where the commercial buildings and trendy shops all had been carefully restored and preserved, the Victorian houses were spacious and grand, and the town square and park were perfectly manicured. The roots of its wealth are in the timber industry, which dominated the local economy for a century, from 1820 to 1920. Later, recreational tourism— everything from biking, hiking, fi shing and rafting to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing flourished.

And then came fracking. We had noticed large trucks carrying drilling equipment on the local roads and fi gured they were involved in the relatively new process of hydraulic fracturing—injecting huge amounts of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep into the ground to break up shale formations and free up natural gas and oil.

The Pine Creek Gorge is located in the Marcellus Shale formation, a stroke of fortune that moved the newly elected Gov. Tom Corbett to predict almost three years ago that the state would be “the Texas of the natural gas boom.”

It turns out he probably was wrong. Since he said those words, gas production in Pennsylvania has fallen off by half, not because there isn’t an adequate supply, but because it has become a victim of its own success. There is so much gas coming so fast that prices have dropped and companies are getting pickier about where they drill.

So now there are only half the number of drilling rigs in Pennsylvania that there were just three years ago, and some of the workers in Wellsboro have moved to Ohio, where the companies prefer to drill for a higher-quality “wet” gas. For those left behind, the royalty payments have withered away, the trucks and rigs have mostly left and the town has turned back to tourism.

Fracking, it turns out, is unpredictable and highly complicated, both as an industry and as an issue. It holds enormous potential, as well as risk, both economically and ecologically. If it is well regulated to exacting standards, it has the capacity to increase energy independence (it already is) and even to mitigate carbon emissions as gas replaces coal in the nation’s power plants.

But that’s a very big if. As of now, as is so often the case, we cannot decide who should be doing the regulating—the feds, the states or local governments. Traditionally, it has been the states doing the work, and it is indeed a hot issue in more than half the legislatures. Some big-state Democratic governors like Jerry Brown in California and Pat Quinn in Illinois have endorsed it, with conditions. And so far, only one state—Vermont—has outright banned fracking, though others like New York and Maryland have moratoriums until they fi gure out how to craft their regulations.

Meanwhile, in at least 15 states including Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York, localities are challenging the idea of state control and enacting restrictions on fracking. In most cases, the states are countering that extraction of resources such as gas, minerals and timber is exempt from local zoning laws.

Much to the consternation of environmental groups, President Obama supported fracking in his last State of the Union addressBut the feds have done relatively little, aside from some studies and recommendations for rules that the industry found too onerous and the environmentalists too soft, and that generally only applied to federal lands. The argument that Washington should step in is based on the alarmingly wide range in state standards and the lack of resources available to enforce them, even in states with oil and gas industries.

States, along with much of the industry, counter that they historically have regulated gas and oil production, they understand the complexity of local geological conditions and, probably most important, they gain the benefi ts and assume the costs of gas production, as well as the consequences if there are mistakes. The feds should only step in, states say, if the regulatory activity crosses state boundaries, like the leakage of unburned methane, a far more serious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Early last spring, there was a promising breakthrough when a number of leading environmental groups joined with some of the major energy companies to create something called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development to set standards and regulate compliance. Its fi rst set of standards seemed to cover both in breadth and depth the wide array of complex rules needed to assure safety.

So at this point, the trend is fairly clear: Fracking seems to hold so much promise for generating inexpensive, relatively clean energy, creating jobs and revenue for the states, that it is hard to dismiss.

On the other hand, the problems—the extraordinary amounts of water needed and wastewater created, the threat of poisoning water supplies and releasing unburned methane—are daunting. A major mishap could create a catastrophe that might well derail the whole industry.

So now we have to figure out how best to regulate it, and we had better get it right.

Fracking Wells in the United States

NOTE: Please zoom out to view Alaska and Hawaii

Source: Environment America Research & Policy Center

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus |