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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

GAO: shale gas regulation hampered by lack of cumulative impacts analysis, data, and jurisdiction

The Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, has issued two reports on shale gas development at the request of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who have raised questions about fracking.

The reports offer no surprises, but do repeat well-established concerns about risks, lack of data and analysis, limited Federal jurisdiction, and problems with inspection and enforcement.

“oil and gas development, whether conventional or shale oil and gas, pose inherent environmental and public health risks, but the extent of these risks associated with shale oil and gas development is unknown, in part, because the studies GAO reviewed do not generally take into account the potential long-term, cumulative effects.”

In addition, there is significant variability in risks:

“the extent and severity of environmental and public health risks identified in the studies and publications GAO reviewed may vary significantly across shale basins and also within basins because of location- and process-specific factors, including the location and rate of development; geological characteristics…climatic conditions; business practices; and regulatory and enforcement activities.”

The second report, Key Environmental and Public Health Requirements, analyzed federal laws, state laws in six selected states (Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming), and interviewed federal and state officials and representatives from industry, environmental, and public health organizations. The report found that enforcement is limited and inspection efforts are hampered:

 “…requirements from eight federal environmental and public health laws apply to unconventional oil and gas development...However, key exemptions or limitations in regulatory coverage affect the applicability of six of these environmental and public health laws...In addition, oil and gas exploration and production wastes are exempt from (certain provisions of) the (Clean Water Act), and from the (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) hazardous waste requirements.

The GAO found that the EPA – and states - have difficulty in regulating, investigating, and enforcing water contamination cases:

“Federal and state agencies reported several challenges in regulating oil and gas development from unconventional reservoirs. EPA officials reported that conducting inspection and enforcement activities and having limited legal authorities are challenges...(C)onducting inspection and enforcement activities is challenging due to limited information, such as data on groundwater quality prior to drilling. EPA officials also said that the exclusion of exploration and production waste from hazardous waste regulations under RCRA significantly limits EPA’s role in regulating these wastes. In addition, (Federal Bureau of Land Management) and state officials reported that hiring and retaining staff and educating the public are challenges…retaining employees is difficult because qualified staff are frequently offered more money for private sector positions within the oil and gas industry.”

The GAO reports underscore the need for more research – particularly on cumulative impacts of shale gas development – and what industry leaders, investors, and the rest of the world have been saying: regulation of shale gas development in the US – whether at the Federal or state level - is not yet strong enough.   

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