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Can the Fracking Industry Clean Up After Itself?

With the expansion of natural gas extraction into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, the fracking industry has mushroomed enormously in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. natural gas production is now running 13 percent higher than during President George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

An interactive map from the Earth Justice advocacy group shows how fracking operations have grown — along with the number of serious fracking accidents. Pennsylvania, in particular, seems to be among the hardest hit by natural gas industry injuries.

Can the industry regulate itself?

Now a new study from the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin suggests that some of the problems associated with fracking can be fixed relatively easily, if the industry would just focus more on safety. The research group, which is independent of the energy industry, has produced some interesting work.

It studied many aspects of reported fracking problems, such as “groundwater contamination, toxicity of hydraulic fracturing fluids, surface spills, atmospheric emissions, water use, drilling waste disposal, blowouts, and road traffic and noise.” The authors conclude that many of the dangers associated with fracking in the press are not really unique to shale gas extraction, but are risks that are common, understood, and manageable in the oil and gas industry now.

The researchers point out that there is a gap in enforcement procedures: State governments have primary responsibility for regulating gas extraction because the federal government has abandoned its responsibilities in the matter. But most “state oil and gas regulations were written well before shale gas development became widespread,” the study says. And these antiquated laws aren’t regularly enforced anyway. “Enforcement capacity is highly variable among the states,” the authors say, and “Enforcement actions tend to emphasize surface incidents more than subsurface contaminant releases, perhaps because they are easier to observe.”

What does this mean for the future of fracking? Perhaps the best clue comes from a recent panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As reported in Scientific American, the experts on the panel seemed convinced that the industry could significantly improve safety and contamination-control measures if it decided to make the effort. Indeed, some scientists thought that improving safety would ease public resistance to fracking: “I would think the gas industry, in its own self-interest, would want to do that,” said Chip Groat, a professor of geology at the University of Texas at Austin and lead investigator for the Energy Institute Study.

We’re not holding our breath

The trouble is, the energy industry seems unable to recognize its own self-interest when it comes to safety. We’ve seen that the energy sector has long had a policy of covering up its mistakes and thumbing its nose at public opinion. It’s hard to believe that this will change now. Nor do we expect that toothless state regulators, dazzled by energy industry profits, will suddenly wake up tomorrow morning and vigorously clamp down on industry abuses.

We can hope that this report will be a wake-up call to the fracking industry. But we’re not going to gamble the rent money on it.

In the meantime, individual action is the best corrective to industry abuses. If you or a loved one has been injured due to a gas extraction accident — or any accident at an energy industry job site — you should contact Jon Ostroff right away. Jon is Pennsylvania’s dedicated fracking injury lawyer, and his staff at Ostroff Injury Law stand ready to help you get every penny you deserve to compensate your injuries. Call today at (855) 880-6667 or fill in the online form to get a FREE, no-obligation evaluation of your case.