About Air and Water

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drilling dispute's hidden conflict: Who's going to run Texas?

By MITCHELL SCHNURMAN - Fort Worth Star Telegram - July 10, 2010
Science and politics go together about as well as natural gas and drinking water.
The combination can be dangerous, with long-term consequences.
In the deep-red state of Texas, where history and economy intertwine with oil and gas, new clashes over science and politics are bubbling to the surface, threatening even more confusion.
It's tough enough for an average citizen to make a judgment on gas drilling. Advocates insist it's safe and there's never been a case of groundwater contamination. Residents cite cancer-causing emissions and say, "Check my back yard -- and take a swig of this water."
Science is supposed to settle the matter, drawing a bright line between things to fear and fear-mongering. But now we also have to decide whom to believe and whom to trust.
The Environmental Protection Agency came to Fort Worth last week, holding a public meeting as part of a new study on gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing. About 600 people turned out to hear stories about "fracking," and many implored the EPA to ride to the rescue because they felt betrayed by their state.
The day before, Gov. Rick Perry went to Dallas to unveil an effort to pull together all of Texas' resources on energy, including programs at major universities. Perry was responding to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but part of his mission is to stay on top of fracking -- and keep the natural gas flowing in Texas.
There was nothing coincidental about Perry's timing or the EPA kicking off its study in the home of the Barnett Shale. The conflict within the conflict: Who's going to run Texas?
Perry wants to reassert the state's primacy over all things oil and gas, and extend his vision of states' rights. The federal government, through the EPA, wants to show that it can make meaningful progress in even the most hostile territory.
On the political front, this clash has been at a high pitch since President Barack Obama took office 18 months ago (although Perry knocked heads with the EPA during the Bush administration, too). Perry rejected more than $500 million in unemployment insurance funds, saying too many strings were attached. He passed on the chance for federal education grants and pushed Texas to be among the states suing over the healthcare law.
Oil and gas should afford more room for a middle ground. Texas has a long track record developing and monitoring gas drilling. And Perry, like many local leaders, has experience balancing the economy and the environment.
At the EPA, the focus is solely on the environment, so it seems that both sides could learn from the other.
Instead, the debate over fracking could devolve into one more battle between Washington and a conservative Southern governor. That could generate more heat than light, at a time when communities want to get a handle on the true threats of drilling and protect their residents.
In North Texas, the Barnett Shale has been a huge boost to jobs and income, but more people are worrying about the long-term risks. The Gulf oil spill has become a reminder that serious dangers can lurk beyond public view.
The oil and gas industry wants states to manage fracking, fearful of new federal standards. Officials from the Texas Railroad Commission, as well as representatives from Oklahoma and Louisiana, were quick to defend their regulatory records at the EPA hearing.
The EPA didn't criticize the states directly. Plenty of citizens did that, telling stories of contaminated water, polluted air and dying cattle -- and alleging that state agencies had ignored them. Many also believe that businesses and their lobbyists have too much clout with state legislatures.
The scope of the EPA study is a bit unnerving, given the amount of fracking that's already occurred. Plus, it won't be completed for 21/2 years.
Some questions listed by the EPA: How are well casings constructed? How is dirty fracking fluid managed? What are the gaps in current knowledge?
Sounds like basic stuff -- facts that really should have been settled long ago.
The Barnett Shale has about 14,000 gas wells, and we're now asking what we don't know about the environmental impact?
Parker County Judge Mark Riley, one of dozens of speakers at the hearing, blamed the states and the gas industry for the current crisis in confidence.
"The states just haven't been responsive to citizens," Riley said.
The gas industry stirred fears by refusing to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process, he said. And states lost credibility by considering exemptions on air permits. If state regulators and industry had been more aggressive on safety and the environment, federal intervention would be unnecessary -- and Riley wants to keep the feds out.
Mark Brownstein, deputy director for energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the nuclear industry took its own aggressive steps after the Three Mile Island accident. One bad player damaged the entire industry, so companies set higher standards and posted annual rankings.
Investors watch those scores closely, and Brownstein says that people get fired if performance drops.
He says states and industry have legitimate reasons to police the gas drilling business. They have more experience, more staff and can tailor regulations to their geology.
"But if they fail to make sure that it's being done properly, this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy -- the federal government will step in," he said.
Reach that point, and even a Texas governor won't be able to push back.

Mitchell Schnurman's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7821

Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram

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