Fracking cracks open the crannies

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By John Bartlit

“Fracking” is shoptalk for hydraulic fracturing. The technology uses mixtures of fluids and sand under pressure to crack rocks underground and prop open the cracks.
In the right rocks, the technique frees natural gas trapped in mini-pockets and adds greatly to the nation’s supply of the popular fuel.
It works too for extracting oil. The industry proudly promotes fracking. A persistent TV ad shows a lady riding a see-through elevator deep into the Earth to highlight the value of fracking while suggesting no risks.
But everything has risks. The chance of error and unknowns lurks on every side.
The policy questions are what are the risks, who bears the risks and how can the total risk be cut.
All this makes fracking a good place to try more efficient regulation.
Industry favors self-regulation. Can a system of self-regulating be made efficient from end to end?
That is, from designing operations that cut environmental losses and economic cost to ensuring compliance.
A modern system to do fracking this way can be built on seven steps:
•Identify needed data that industry operators are required to supply.  
•Identify the kinds of harm that can occur to aquifers, surface water and the ground itself.
•In a regulatory process, define a measured amount of each harm that is excessive.
•Specify rules to prevent the levels of harm identified in Step 3.
•The pre-set rules then remain dormant while industry is free to do as it chooses.
•By a trustworthy means yet to be determined, the status of aquifers, surface water and the ground itself is measured and reported.   
•If any excessive level of harm identified in step 3 is found, the rules set in step 4 go into effect on all fracking in that legal jurisdiction. If no harm accrues, no rules go into effect.
•The new-made muscle in the process: It is the industrial-strength penalty for non-compliance and the efficient enforcement lever rolled into one. The design turns industry’s intense dislike of government rules into a newfound reason to protect air and water resources.
To industry, triggering government rules is a much larger “penalty” for harm done than any fines paid now.
All sides will have their objections.  
Some in industry will ask why the industry as a whole is tied to the harm one company does.
The plea discredits the industry’s ads that say harm won’t happen. The position also blocks the prospects for self-regulation.
Think it through. The industry as a whole proclaims that fracking is safe. Therefore, the industry as a whole has the burden of succeeding.
The much-praised commission report on BP’s deepwater oil spill said it clearly: industry’s reputation and viability depend on its lowest-performing member.
So does the health of water and land depend on the worst practitioner of fracking.
Some on the green side say the method does not safeguard the water until after it is harmed, perhaps irreparably. History shows this happens now.
Witness the deficient efforts to ensure high-quality drilling in the Gulf. Witness the efforts to regulate fracking. Modernized self-regulation could bring safeguards that are fair yet stronger than any effected in the last 20 years.
The test of an idea is not whether it is optimum in every way. Ask, is it a better option for every side than the old route. Modern self-regulation passes the test.
The lifeblood of all regulation is the steady disclosure of up-to-date information that people need. The data for fracking begin with the fracking fluid pumped into rocks deep underground.
For a long time, companies said the makeup of what they use was a trade secret, but this is changing. The web now has a chemical disclosure registry at FracFocus.org that is beginning to supply these data for each well.
Fracking fluid is made of 90 percent water and 9.5 percent sand used to prop cracks open. The remaining 0.5 percent is what perks up public interest in the chemicals. Some are toxic in sufficient amounts.
A giant question is the fate of the “return fluid,” that is, the huge volumes of fracking fluid that are returned to the surface with the fracking chemicals plus amounts of crude oil and other hazardous materials found in deep rocks. What treatment is needed to avoid step 7?     
Disclosing these data is the first step in modern self-regulation. The data must include measurements showing the status of the ground, subsurface and surface waters with regard to the harms that trigger the government rules.  
The aim is to produce industry-wide standards strong enough to protect the environment, backed by serious self-enforcement with industrial-strength tools and know-how.     
Such cheaper, better ways of dealing with problems fill a sore need.   
John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water