Tennessee for years has had a few lightly regulated natural gas wells in several north Tennessee counties. But with the rise of new techniques for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of deep shale deposits to release natural gas, those counties and others in northwest and southeast Tennessee - including Hamilton County - are now expected to become players in the national shale fracking industry. That may enrich the gas industry, but under the state's lamentably lax environmental laws, fracking is likely to threaten public water supplies with toxic pollution, and run the risk of air contaminated by radon, methane and other potent toxins.
Though outrageous, this isn't unusual. When it comes to fracking, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been politically hamstrung since the Reagan administration by major oil and gas lobbies. Even now, the EPA has been restricted by political leaders and Congress from developing comprehensive, effective national standards for the use and disposal of millions of gallons of toxic chemicals and fluids that are commonly used to force natural gas out of fractured shale deposits that lie more 5,000 feet underground.
Tennessee and other state governments are even more subject to anti-regulation bias and industry lobbyists. They have similarly failed to enact standards that protect the public's interest in safe and clean water supplies and clean air. News reports on fracking around the country confirm the dire problem of lax regulation. And reports by this newspaper's Pam Sohn over the past week bear witness to this surging conflict in Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee, for example, has put its agricultural department's 8,636-acre publicly owned Cumberland Forest land in northeast Tennessee quietly on the table for negotiations for fracking leases with companies looking for gas, coal-bed methane and oil deposits. The proposal was fast-tracked, without transparency and a fair public forum, to the executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission last Thursday.
Documents on the proposal requested in December by the Nashville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center were wrongly withheld on the specious grounds that they were not official until the proposal was approved. Sohn's request for the documents was similarly denied last week on the same illogical grounds.
SELC attorney Anne Davis raised pertinent questions about the proposal that remain unanswered: Whether fracking companies would be liable for damage to public water supplies; why the proposal hasn't been publicly discussed; what, if any, rules would apply for safe use and disposal of toxic fracking fluids and for mitigation of drilling sites; and how the profits from well leases would be used.
These issues barely scratch the surface of the national controversy over fracking and the ingredients used in the process, usually in a mixture of vast quantities of water, sand and toxic chemicals, or a mixture of nitrogen gas and toxic additives. The mix is injected under high pressure into permeable shale deposits to crack open paths for natural gas to flow into the well bore.
There is good reason for public safety concerns about fracking. If methane, a toxic gas, escapes from the well-bore, it can migrate easily through the shale into aquifers and public water supplies, hence the infamous film showing running water from a faucet easily set afire in a Pennsylvania home near a fracking well.
Use and disposal of toxic chemicals, and the potential for releasing radioactive elements and radon from shale wells, are also major concerns. In many cases, toxic well-bore fluids, or their residual sludge, are superficially treated and left in lined detention ponds covered with dirt near well sites, a practice that requires stiff regulation. More egregiously, fracking and other gas-drilling operations are still not required by the federal government, or virtually all states, to identify the specific ingredients they use in fracking, though most are known to be toxic chemicals.
Tennessee's regulations, moreover, do not even require drillers to test wells for leakages or to notify neighboring land owners unless they pump more than 200,000 gallons of water into a well. Tennessee's governor and environmental departments have also failed to adopt the American Petroleum Institute's best practices' guidelines for drillers.
A New York Times survey of more than 111,000 leases demonstrates the vast problems of fracking. It found that fewer than half the leases require compensation of landowners for water contamination; that most leases convey broad rights to gas companies to clear trees, store chemicals, build roads and run 24-hour drilling operations; that drilling companies generally don't inform landowners of potential environmental risks; and that most leases grant the companies automatic rights to extend their leases.
These are just a few of the issues that require cogent, comprehensive oversight. Yet when Gov. Bill Haslam met with this newspaper's editorial board Thursday, he showed scant interest in concerns over fracking, and glossed over the topic. That may be the propensity of an energy-based billionaire whose family owns the national Pilot Flying J gas station empire. But it does not serve Tennessee well.