To date, America's "Natural Gas Revolution" has been driven by private industry and aided by competent regulatory guidance at the state level in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Ohio, and elsewhere. Leadership at the state level has allowed regulators to craft plans unique to their own state's best interest by building an effective balance between economic growth and environmental and public health protection. New York, Colorado, North Carolina, and Vermont are each developing their own plans for natural gas production.
New York in particular has spent the better part of the past three years studying the natural gas development in the state. Under the leadership of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York's efforts will engage the issues that arose in Pennsylvania and elsewhere and steer the development of the regulations necessary to address them. That plan -- thousands of pages in length -- includes a raft of new requirements for natural gas operators, from drinking water protection measures to disclosure of additives used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
It's clear that states, as they have for numerous vital public policy concerns, are continuing to lead the way on studying and preparing comprehensive regulatory schemes for natural gas development. What isn't clear is the role of the federal sector, specifically Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI).
The EPA is currently in the midst of a multi-year study to examine the potential impacts of fracturing on groundwater. The DOI is currently developing regulations to govern natural gas development on federal lands and regulating and enforcing regulations on non-federal lands within a state's boundaries. Federal officials are responsible for regulating on federal lands, providing broad regulatory guidance and developing technical and other tools to facilitate the operations of state and federal officials. Only in the most extraordinary cases, or in the case of a state's failure to adequately regulate, does the federal agency, following due process, assume that state's responsibilities.
When it comes to the development of natural gas, there is no reasonable justification for federal intrusion upon these state level authorities. States generally have more experience and more experienced staff than federal agencies -- states have successfully carried out these responsibilities for several decades -- and they better understand the specifics and the peculiarities of their jurisdictions as state agencies are closer to those citizens most directly concerned.
EPA is currently doing a follow-up study of drinking well contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, and this may prove to be a particularly inappropriate effort. Even after the questionable methodology used in this study is addressed, one must ask if the uniqueness of the Pavillion drinking water case, which is still under peer review, has any applicability to the rest of the nation.
Instead of exploring the risks that are most common in shale gas development across the country, and as a result, most relevant to improving state regulation, EPA seems intent on studying only one-of-a-kind worst-case scenarios -- such as Pavillion.
While states have spent considerable time and resources studying best practices, the implications of development, how to mitigate impacts, creating registries, and requiring disclosure -- to name just a few topics -- EPA could be of greater assistance by doing an in-depth analysis of those issues common to most states. It is doubtful that there is any lurking, paradigm changing unknown risk particular to hydraulic fracturing.
The risks and areas of need are well-known, and regulators in individual states are separately working hard to tackle them. Yet EPA continues to use its scarce resources to search for a theoretical doomsday scenario that would justify a broad overhaul of oil and gas regulation. EPA needs the resources but not to conduct more studies that have little relevance or little applicability to the issues of national concern.
President Obama has boldly expressed his desire to expand the development and use of natural gas. State agencies need relevant, collaboratively developed data from federal agencies to achieve the President's goal. Both EPA and the DOI could be strong players in meeting the President's goal and the state agencies' need.
Recently, The New York Times' Joe Nocera commented on the need for greater productive collaboration with officials trying to develop their resources. Nocera noted, "fracking's enemies can stamp their feet all they want, but that gas is too important to leave it in the ground." Tellingly, it was a leader of the environmental community who led Nocera to the conclusion that federal agencies are not stepping up to be productive players in safely developing natural gas. It was none other than Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund who remarked, "given the dysfunction in D.C., a state-by-state approach will be more effective."
Put simply, natural gas production is too important for our economy, jobs, revenues and output, energy independence, transportation and our environment (as a power plant fuel with half the carbon footprint of coal) to become the next political football in the increasingly polarized climate of Washington, D.C.
It is time that everyone, federal agencies and state agencies, industry and consumers took up the priorities as laid out by our president. The last thing this country needs is for the enormous benefits of American natural gas to be held up for any reason, no matter how well-intended.
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