Thursday, July 07, 2011

Policy, Politcs, And Hydraulic Fracturing

One complaint often heard in various liberal circles is that the United States is the only industrialized country not to have some kind of comprehensive energy policy. This is very true. We also do not have comprehensive policies regarding housing, job creation, immigration and naturalization, law enforcement jurisdictional lines, and pretty much any other policy area. The reason for this lack of any comprehensive policy in these areas is simple enough to understand: the structure of our government, as well as the whims and fancies of politicians, quite simply create too many barriers to the creation of any comprehensive policy in any area. With federalism placing limitations on the reach and sovereignty of both states and the federal government, differences between civil, criminal, and administrative law as well as their reach, and the ideological and policy preference differences within and among the parties all create enough of a barrier to limit the possibility of creating some kind of comprehensive, coherent policy on any issue you wish to name. Laws change, different parties take over Congress or the Executive Branch, Administrative regulations accrue and change over time, states approach various matters in a piecemeal or thorough fashion, only to have a new governor come in and fundamentally alter the equation.

The pursuit of a comprehensive energy policy and strategy was one of the major goals of the Carter Administration. In a speech to the nation on April 18, 1977 (according to his memoirs, Keeping Faith), he announced his plan to introduce such legislation to Congress, famously declaring that the pursuit of such a policy would be "the moral equivalent of war". Now, there are wars and there are wars. Even the gilded chapter of Carter's memoirs on the subject make clear he and his staff pursued the goal with all the energy and expertise of the Italian campaign in Albania during the Second World War. Rather than a long-term, comprehensive strategy, what emerged at the end of Carter's term were a series of measures, some conflicting with one another, all limited in scope and soon to be ignored or made moot with time. In the decades since, there has been no attempt to create any kind of strategy to deal with the complicated matter of energy consumption, conservation, the environmental threat of extracting non-renewable resources, or support for renewable energy.

The situation at the state level varies depending upon many factors. California, for example, is a good model for how to design an energy policy that balances multiple concerns, while ensuring that all stakeholders both have a voice and surrender their most cherished desires. Texas, on the other hand, is a wide open arena, with oil and gas companies able to dictate the terms of their presence in the state.

Yesterday, I noted Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's desire to make Pennsylvania the Texas of the northeast, by which he presumably means limited administrative and environmental regulation, little to no taxation of their business enterprises or practices.

I will be up front about this approach. I find it odd, to say the least. In the case of Pennsylvania, or, indeed, any of the states in the Marcellus Shale region, it is the states who hold the upper hand in any possible discussion over the terms by which outside entities are allowed to open up shop. The potential of the Shale natural gas fields are far too attractive for the companies to balk at playing by rules that are set to benefit the states in question. In other words, any threat by any gas company not to play ball is empty. In fact, any company that followed through would have three or four others ready to take its place.

Yet, as too often happens, there seems to be a belief that, having abundant natural resources available for exploitation means public capitulation to private demands on everything from taxes and property regulations to environmental oversight and the maintenance of the transportation networks. On the one hand, the states see possibilities for economic development from the industry; on the other hand, they are unwilling to make the industry share the burden for that development, seeing instead such development coming from the effect on development upon existing revenue streams. This scenario is, quite clearly, playing itself out in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

While the states differ in their approaches to the entwined concerns of economic development and environmental protection, there is an on-going effort to address specific concerns regarding the potential hazards from hydraulic fracturing. Introduced recently for the third time, the Fracturing Responsibility And Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act - I find this kind of thing too cutesy) is designed to address two specific matters relating to hydraulic fracture techniques for natural gas drilling. The first is a loophole in the law that exempts natural gas companies from oversight in matters regarding clean water. The second is the on-going lack of transparency on the chemical content of the fluid used in hydraulic fracturing. A story on the recent reintroduction of the bill includes comments from one of the authors and co-sponsors of the legislation:
“There is a growing discrepancy between the natural gas industry’s claim that nothing ever goes wrong and the drumbeat of investigations and personal tragedies which demonstrate a very different reality,” Rep. Polis said in a press release. “The FRAC Act is a simple, common sense way to answer the serious concerns that accompany the rapid growth of drilling across the country. Our bill restores a basic, national safety-net that will ensure transparency within the industry and safeguard our communities. If there is truly nothing to worry about, then this bill will lay the public’s concern to rest through science and sunlight.”


“As we recognize the need for energy independence and alternative sources to power our nation, natural gas is an important economic driver and a critical bridge fuel,” said Rep. DeGette. “However, it is incumbent upon us to ensure the process for extracting natural gas from our land is done safely and responsibly. The FRAC Act takes necessary but reasonable steps to ensure our nation’s drinking water is protected, and that as fracking operations continue to expand, communities can be assured that the economic benefits of natural gas are not coming at the expense of the health of their families.”

“While the natural gas industry would like to pretend that the current regulatory framework is sufficient to protect the environment, drinking water and public health, scores of citizens throughout the country are telling a different story,” said Rep. Hinchey. “We need to know exactly what chemicals are being injected into the ground and we must ensure that the industry is not exempt from basic environmental safeguards like the Safe Drinking Water Act. The FRAC Act is an important first step toward ensuring that people are protected from the risks of hydraulic fracturing.”
With New York poised to move forward in allowing the use of hydraulic fracturing in the natural gas fields of the Southern Tier, this law would address specific concerns on a national level, giving state lawmakers the ability to make responsible decisions regarding balancing the very real need for economic development with the very real dangers posed by the use of this particular technique. It isn't a national energy policy, but it is a good step forward.

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