Conservation groups say Tennessee's fracking rules don't go far enough

photo Fracking

Lawmakers have passed new rules for mining natural gas in Tennessee - with rare blessings from the industry and environmental groups alike.

But while the two groups agreed the regulations were a good step for the natural gas industry, conservation groups say some aspects of the regulations are full of hot air.

The Tennessee Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday approved new rules for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, drafted by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Fracturing is a method of mining natural gas by injecting pressurized, chemically treated water or gas into shale, causing it to fracture and release trapped gas.

The more stringent regulations requiring extraction companies to monitor environmental impacts, take comments from the public or disclose chemicals used before fracturing are only required for operations that use more than 200,000 gallons of water.

The hitch is, fracturing operations in Tennessee don't use that much water, because the geology of the region calls for a different method that uses nitrogen gas instead.

That's exactly what Sierra Club State Conservation Chairman Scott Banbury says needs attention. Banbury and others urged lawmakers on Wednesday to pass the new rules, under the condition that TDEC revise and add rules to keep better tabs on low-volume wells.

But lawmakers passed the regulations outright, with no further revision. The rules go into effect June 18.

Banbury said the Sierra Club will take what it can get, but the club is going to lobby for more rules down the road. Its main concerns are the impact the mining process has on ground and surface water, along with erosion and runoff issues from land clearing.

"Anything that could impact water quality deserves public notification and some form of public comment. That's completely absent until you get to that 200,000-gallon threshold," Banbury said.

He also said extraction companies should have to disclose the chemicals they are using in the fracking process, so public health officials know how to respond in case of an accident.

Davis Mounger, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club's Cherokee region, which includes Hamilton County, said he just wants the natural gas industry to have similar rules to other mining or timber operations.

"A small businessman is in some ways required to do more public notices than a fracking operation," Mounger said. "Coal mines and timber companies have public comment periods, and those seem to be absent for this industry."

Still, conservationists are happy to see rules in place, and say they aren't all bad.

"They did establish clearer standards in terms of the cementing of wells. They put in a requirement that casings extend 100 feet below the deepest ground water source," Banbury said.

But those from the industry say let the rules go into effect before new ones are made.

"Do I think there need to be more? Not at this time. They spent two years working on this talking to everybody involved. ... I think now's the time to see if these rules work," Chuck Laine said.

Laine is vice president of the Tennessee Oil and Gas Association.

"We recognize as an industry that rules are needed as fracturing continues in our state. ... But let's see how they work," Laine said.

That's in line with TDEC's plan, according to Meg Lockhart, a department spokeswoman.

"The department has no plans to pursue additional rules for oil and gas wells at this time. However, we are always willing to do further rulemaking as needed to keep in step with ever-changing conditions," Lockhart said Friday.

She also said low-volume wells were not completely left out of the rules. The handling of waste water and well shaft integrity requirements apply to all wells, Lockhart said.

Michael Mallen, an attorney with Miller & Martin's environmental practice group, said he expects the rules will change over time.

"I think you are going to see a real-time assessment of how it goes, and you are going to see revisions, additions and amendments to the regulations as it goes," Mallen said.

Lockhart said TDEC's new regulations don't prohibit county governments or municipalities from levying their own rules on fracturing, and Mallen said he expects that might start happening across the state as more companies move in.

Mallen said municipalities may go into "anticipatory mode" and start creating ordinances to limit or prohibit fracture mining within their jurisdictions.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.