On the morning of the first public comment session for the DENR shale gas study, I want to share three main points highlighted in Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland. Yes, there are a lot of attention-grabbing images in the film, most notably the faucets being set on fire. And if you hear the critique of Gasland from industry representatives, you hear these cases are not due to gas drilling practices. With this, let me again say that I am not surprised that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has stated in the draft report that hydraulic fracturing can be done in this state if the proper precautions are in place. Those precautions are not in place at the moment. But let me get back to Gasland…
The first remarkable enlightenment from Gasland is that state agency’s hands are tied to legislation. There is the scene where Josh is in Colorado speaking with people who are each experiencing problems with their water, and the one woman shared the conversation she had with a state regulator who had defended industry: she asked if he was helping industry, who was serving her, the public? His response: I don’t know – hire a lawyer. No wonder public trust in government is precipitously falling.
Then, later, Josh is interviewing the Head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. This conversation was tough because I felt that Josh was a little adversarial, and yet both of them were frustrated by the limitations of their respective positions. The DEP could only respond to the complaints they had received, and responded accordingly – they can’t respond to the perception of the problem, only to the reality. The state of Pennsylvania has touted itself on having the toughest regulations for gas drilling, and they have a long list of fines levied against gas developers that have violated those regulations; but the key question is how can the state regulate gas development in a way to prevent those violations before they occur?
And the interview with Weston Wilson from the EPA exposes these same parameters. He points out that testing on water quality, well construction, etc., came to a halt after the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was passed, yet here was a situation in which the public have industrial practices in their backyards with unknown contents and consequences. In the extras portion of the DVD, which is a must-see, an extended interview with Wilson mentions one of the biggest challenges with hydraulic fracturing: wells that have gone bad due to poor design or construction are being studied, but there is the problem of good wells that go bad that are not being studied.
So, the lesson here is for North Carolina to have very clear regulations on the technology, and the whole practice (I didn’t even mention the extent of problems caused by lack of treatment of the flow back water and other surface contamination from the drill site), and then for the public to have a thorough understanding of how to work with DENR and the industry to protect public interest.