After Federal and State Governments Fail to Regulate Fracking, Communities Fight Back
Photo Credit: AFP
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A growing boom in natural gas drilling near homes and schools prompted the city of Longmont, Colorado to vote last July to bar new oil and gas permits in residential neighborhoods.
The state quickly overturned the ordinance. Gov. John Hickenlooper said that letting it stand would “stir-up a hornet's nest,” encouraging other Colorado towns to pass their own drilling rules. Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs argued that communities have the right to restrict heavy industry in residential zones – including oil and gas drilling.
The natural gas “gold rush” underway in 31 states is indeed “stirring up a hornet’s nest,” sparking pushback from communities that see themselves as the last line of defense protecting citizens against state and federal failures to regulate fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technology that blasts millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand underground to release oil and gas from shale bedrock.
“The U.S. faces a crisis in the enforcement of rules governing the oil and gas industry,” states a new report by Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project. Their study, which analyzed government data from six heavily-fracked states, discovered that each of them failed to enforce existing drilling regulations. Between 53 and 91 percent of active wells in those states go uninspected – 175,000 to 300,000 wells in all, with not enough inspectors nor the funding to pay for them or their equipment. As a result, many violations go unrecorded, with few penalties and many repeat offenders.
With just 17 inspectors for 60,000 wells in West Virginia, municipalities and environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on drilling until various safeguards and monitoring criteria are met. North Carolina’s controversial moratorium on natural gas drilling runs until 2014, when the legislature will vote on as-yet-unwritten regulations. But Raleigh, NC, Morgantown, WV, and other communities aren’t waiting for state action. They’ve preemptively passed local drilling bans or strict zoning rules.
New York State’s contentious 2010 moratorium on natural gas drilling currently remains in place, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo launching a new health study, and the state Supreme Court upholding municipalities’ rights to ban drilling within their borders. At least a dozen New York communities, including Buffalo, have passed such bans.
Next door, in Pennsylvania, the legislature passed a 2012 law forbidding towns from regulating fracking, which was then overturned by the courts. Five Delaware Valley towns quickly asserted their “home rule” rights and prohibited fracking.
In Texas, the towns of Flower Mound, Grapevine and Southlake chose to regulate fracking within their city limits after the industry had heavily impacted their towns. Those ordinances include buffer zones that distance wells from homes, schools, churches, and hospitals, as well as a Southlake ban on summertime fracking due to the industry’s competition for drinking water.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado, more than 80 county commissioners, mayors, and city council members statewide have asked Gov. Hickenlooper to withdraw his lawsuit against Longmont’s fracking ban, saying that, “Local governments have both the right and responsibility to take action to protect the public heath and well being of our citizens as well as the environment.”
Across the nation, this local opposition is occurring within a vacuum. The federal government does not regulate hydraulic fracturing, and the industry – unlike any in America – is exempted from seven major environmental regulations. On the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, fracking gets a pass, along with exemptions from the Clean Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, the Superfund law and hazardous waste disposal regulations.