This morning in Nashville — 9:30 CDT; it's a public meeting — the Tennessee Oil and Gas Board meets on the 17th floor of a Church Street building, where six men will vote on approving standards that would allow for one of the most controversial methods of energy extraction today.
Hydro-fracking in Tennessee.
"They ignored virtually every comment that the public made and adopted virtually all the meaningful comments that industry wanted," said Mark Quarles, an environmental consultant with Nashville's Global Environment.
Hydro-fracking — better known as fracking — is a monstrous process. Horizontal or vertical wells are drilled deep into the earth, then pressurized water and toxic chemicals are forced through the wells into the rock below. The rock is fractured, thus releasing the oil and natural gas trapped there, while also opening a wicked Pandora's box. These same chemicals can leak into aquifers, water wells and drinking supplies.
"Diesel fuel could be injected, legally, into a well," said Quarles. "And diesel fuel contains benzene, a known carcinogen."
A U.S. Geological Survey recently found levels of methane, ethane, diesel and phenol in the water supply of a small Wyoming town that is surrounded by 140 natural gas wells, according to Bloomberg News.
For more than a year, Quarles and other environmental groups have met with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the group responsible for writing the standards for today's vote. Their most important recommendations?
• Establish a baseline system for monitoring water quality before and after drilling.
• Notify the public before any wells are hydro-fracked.
• Match our state's standards with the industry standards formulated by the American Petroleum Institute.
"Virtually all of that was ignored by TDEC," Quarles claimed.
Much of this involves what's known as the 200,000-gallon threshold. The standards to be voted on today only require wells using more than 200,000 gallons of water in their hydro-fracking to monitor water quality and notify the public.
In other words, if fewer than 200,000 gallons of water are used to frack a well, the industry is not required to monitor groundwater or notify the public.
In some parts of Tennessee, thanks to the shallowness and thinness of rock containing the gas, fracking can occur with little water use.
"You might be able to frack [a well] several hundred times and fall beneath the 200,000-gallon threshold," Quarles said.
"And if you are the property owner next door, you don't know what they're using to frack with," said Ann Davis, managing attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Nashville. "If you want to test your own wells, you don't know what to test for."
Jim Bruner, whose company Planet Energy operates three wells in Tennessee, said the rules are fair and balanced, and tighter restrictions will hamper future industry.
"Everybody I know in this industry recognizes what the score is. If you don't follow the rules ... you're facing being out of business," he said.
The score. The rules. At what point do we follow the rules governing our environment? At what point do we tally the score in terms of clean water and democracy? At what point does the state's environmental authority start acting like one?
Sooner or later, we'll realize: When we frack with the earth, we frack ourselves.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...