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Fracking in Indiana: Federal exemptions leave state in charge

Location of shale beds in lower 48 states, updated 3-10-2010
Location of shale beds in lower 48 states, updated 3-10-2010
Energy Information Administration [public domain]

The oil and gas industry conducts a significant amount of fracking throughout the New Albany shale formation in southwest Indiana. Despite a broad range of potentially harmful environmental impacts that fracking entails, the federal government has left regulation of the industry to the states. Indiana’s lax regulations place the rights of the oil and gas industry above concerns for the public health and safety.

What is fracking?

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting oil and gas from highly impermeable rock formations, such as shale. Until recently, the cost of getting at the oil and gas in most shale formations was too high to make it worthwhile. With recent advances in the industry and favorable market prices, fracking has suddenly become economically feasible, sparking a fracking boom in parts of the country with large shale formations. Once considered an unconventional method of gas and oil production, ninety percent of all oil and natural gas wells drilled in the United States now use the fracking method.

Large volumes of fluid---water and chemical additives---are injected into the target rock formations at high pressures to break open the rock, creating pathways for the oil and gas trapped inside the rock to escape. Proppants, such as sand or ceramic beads, are added to the fluid to prop open the newly created fissures in the rock so that the oil and gas can be extracted. Horizontal wells are drilled to intersect vertical fissures. After extraction, the natural geologic pressure within the rock formations forces the fracturing fluids back to the surface. The returning fracking fluid is called “flowback”, and combined with groundwater, it is referred to as “extraction wastewater” or “produced water”. Wastewater often contains high levels of total dissolved solids (salts) and may also contain organic and inorganic chemicals, metals and naturally-occurring radioactive materials.

The wastewater can be discharged into public wastewater treatment plants or private centralized wastewater facility treatment plants and then into surface waters. Public sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove the contaminants found in fracking wastewater. The disinfectants used at sewage treatment plants can interact with some wastewater to form cancer-causing chemicals. Most wastewater is temporarily stored onsite until it can be disposed of by shipping it offsite to be injected underground into a waste well. Disposing of the wastewater underground is cheaper than treating it to remove pollutants. Wastewater from many different fracking well sites may be transported to a single common waste well.

States, not the federal government, regulate the fracking industry.

Congress has the power to regulate the oil and gas industry but has generally left regulation to the states. Loopholes for hydraulic fracturing were created in federal laws that were supposed to safeguard the public health and the environment. Industry lobbyists argued that the country needed to boost energy production and reduce reliance on foreign oil, and environmental regulations would impede development. Haliburton, the first company to hold a U.S. patent on fracking, was instrumental in lobbying for the fracking exemptions contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. More recently, the industry has sought to export fracked gas.

All of the following federal laws, as enacted or amended, have allowed special exceptions for the oil and gas industry: the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The hydraulic fracturing industry was not omitted from federal regulation because fracking poses no danger, but in spite of the danger that it poses to public health and the environment. Meanwhile, the states have struggled to keep up with the fracking boom.

This is the first of a three-part article on hydraulic fracturing:

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