The politics of rules over toxins

The politics of rules over toxins

August 22nd, 2011 in Opinion Times

The oil and natural gas industry's drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing of substrate shale formations to free oil and gas deposits is not new. But the method, commonly referred to as fracking, has become intensely controversial as toxic, carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals used under pressure in new gas industry wells have been found increasingly in adjacent aquifers and watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of people from Pennsylvania and New York to Texas.

With criticism and public anger mounting, a Department of Energy panel recently announced recommendations for tighter regulations to govern fracking operations. They call for better tracking and more rigorous treatment and disposal of the toxic elements disgorged by wells, stricter standards on air pollution from fracking wells, and establishment of a public database on fracking wells and the chemicals and techniques used in them, and the pollution they emit.

The recommendations also call for a ban on the use of diesel fuels and certain other chemicals associated with the release of toxins and carcinogens in wells to prevent water contamination, and for drilling companies to disclose all ingredients used as fracking chemicals. And they call for companies and regulators to keep a manifest detailing each step of the disposal and treatment process of waste, and the handlers and treatment centers used.

Given the findings of the fracking industry's pollution of water resources and inadequate waste treatment, such rules seem sound. But there remains serious questions as to the ability and willingness of DOE and the industry to abide by the rules if they are adopted, and Washington's willingness to withstand the predictable challenges of the drilling industry.

The debate handily illustrates the most pernicious side of the political theater in which Republicans malign regulatory authorities such as the EPA and the DOE, among others, for regulations intended to protect the public from toxic emissions and polluted public resources like drinking water. They say such regulations hamper industry and kill jobs. But they say nothing about the poison they would unleash in the absence of sane regulation.