Exposing Fracking to Sunlight

The public needs access to reliable information about the effects of unconventional oil and gas development in order for it to trust that local communities’ concerns won’t be ignored in favor of national and global interests.

The recent expansion of oil and natural gas extraction from shale and other tight geological formations—so-called unconventional oil and gas resources—has marked one of the most significant changes to the U.S. and global economy so far in the 21st century. In the past decade, U.S. production of natural gas from shale has increased more than 10-fold and production of “tight oil” from shale has grown 16-fold. As a result, natural gas wholesale prices have declined, making gas-fired power plants far more competitive than other fuel sources such as coal and nuclear power.

Oil and gas extraction enabled by hydraulic fracturing has contributed to a switch away from coal to natural gas in the U.S. power sector. Although that switch has been an important driver for reducing U.S. carbon emissions during combustion for electricity generation and industrial processes, carbon emissions from natural gas do contribute substantially to global warming. Thus, from a climate standpoint, natural gas is less attractive than lower- and zero-carbon alternatives, such as greater energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy. In addition, the drilling, extraction, and transportation through pipelines of oil and natural gas results in the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Domestic energy demand and supply changes are also beginning to shift U.S. geopolitical dynamics with large fossil fuel producers such as Russia and the Middle Eastern states. Although much of the rhetoric—including a significant industry advertising campaign by U.S. gas producers—focuses on the benefits to the nation of a domestic supply of energy, natural gas and oil produced in the United States are part of a global marketplace. For example, just a few years ago, terminals were being built both onshore and offshore in U.S. waters to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) for energy in the New England region. Now a major public policy debate is under way about whether the United States should export natural gas. As a consequence some of these same terminals are being dismantled and others may be redeveloped for the export of LNG.

Meanwhile, competing desires for less-expensive energy and associated chemical raw materials for plastics, iron, and steel products manufacturing in the United States has created political pushback against allowing exports. But with uncertainty about supply from Russia for major markets in Europe due to political turmoil, and rapidly growing energy needs in China and India, among others, upward price pressure on natural gas as well as oil is almost certain to follow, keeping the debate on the geopolitics of the issues alive in the days to come.

What is certain though is that a consistent supply of domestic energy, and derived chemicals that serve as raw materials feedstock for manufacturing, will support a 20th-century–style economy with fossil fuels as its base. But what does that mean for the development of renewable energy sources, or alternatives to plastics, industrial chemicals, or natural resources in the United States? What does large-scale investment in these resources mean for our mitigation of carbon emissions and adaptation to climate change impacts?

At the same time that much of the attention is focused on these national and global implications, it can be forgotten that considerable uncertainty persists about the local implications of fracking for communities and the environment. Whereas the larger-scale global questions may be harder to answer, the proper application of federal, state, and local laws and better public information can go a long way toward answering critical questions on the local level.

Examining production

Despite the rapid pace of development of unconventional oil and gas resources enabled by fracking across the United States, and its influence on domestic and international energy markets, there is remarkably little independent information available to the public on the effects, both positive and negative, of such an undertaking. And because fuller analysis to answer these questions is not available, the American people and their elected representatives have not had a chance to make informed choices about whether and how unconventional oil and gas development occurs.

This is, in part, due to the lack of comprehensive regulation of unconventional oil and gas development at the federal level. Because the oil and gas industry secured many exceptions to our major environmental laws, oversight of this new, fast-paced development has fallen primarily to the jurisdiction of the states, which often lack the resources to require and enforce data collection and sharing. So while discussion of risks and concerns associated with unconventional oil and gas development has taken place in the press, in academic literature, at federal agencies, and among various special interest and advocacy groups, such conversations have occurred largely outside of any clear, overarching policy framework.

At the same time, concerted actions by industry severely limit regulation and disclosure, which has left citizens, communities, and policymakers without access to information on the full range of consequences of shale resource development in order to make fact-based decisions. Compounding this problem is the fact that much of the scientific discourse on the technical dimensions of unconventional oil and gas development, including the engineering of fuel extraction, production, transportation, refining and waste disposal, not to mention the economic, environmental, and social impacts, has failed to adequately inform the public conversation.

In the absence of comprehensive and credible information, readily available to the public, conversations and decisions on unconventional oil and gas development in the United States have been marred by an extremely polarized debate over the risks, benefits, and costs of development. Development has expanded in many communities with little clear requirement for state and local jurisdictions to collect the information needed to inform the public, adequately regulate the industry, and ensure public health and safety. Worse still, most sites have been developed without baseline studies of environmental conditions before drilling and without any ongoing monitoring of changes to air and water quality during and after development, perpetuating the cycle of insufficient data collection.

Science needs to be part of the choices we make in a democratic society. In order to reach decisions with the direct involvement of the citizenry, scientific information that is independent, credible, and timely must be accessible to the public and play an important role in informing decisions.

Hydraulic fracturing involves risks that are both similar to and different from those of conventional oil and gas development (Table 1). Risks that are qualitatively different include the volume, composition, use, and disposal of water, sand, and chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing process; the size of well pads; and the scale of fracking-related development. Importantly, the advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has brought development to new and more-populated areas, increasing development’s intersection with communities. These factors can contribute to rapid social disruption as well as environmental damage, particularly to regions that have not previously been exposed to the oil and gas industry.



Unfortunately, the social costs of unconventional oil and gas development have not been analyzed in nearly the same detail as the geopolitics of energy. These social costs include public health and environmental effects of fossil fuel production and the manufacturing of products enabled by this boom (Table 1). And these social costs range from local effects on communities to implications for global warming. In addition, environmental and socioeconomic concerns around oil and gas development can be different for different communities. For example, western states and localities tend to be more concerned about effects on water availability, whereas eastern states and localities tend to focus more on the impact on water quality. Communities with existing oil and gas facilities may worry about expanded development, whereas those that have not previously hosted the industry are often concerned about potential new environmental and socioeconomic effects, such as strain on public services, new pipelines, and heavy truck traffic.

Because the data on these effects are either lacking or incomplete, at least some states (e.g., Maryland, New York, and California) and localities have responded by enacting moratoriums or outright bans on development. Fixed-duration moratoriums are usually intended to allow time for either the assessment of environmental and public health impacts or for the formulation of an adequate regulatory structure for development. To mitigate many of the risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development, there is a fundamental need for comprehensive baseline analysis followed by monitoring of effects. The resultant information must be publicly available to the greatest extent practicable, so that citizens and elected officials have open access to the scientific information in order to decide if and how to regulate development in their communities.

The government role

Given the dramatic impact of unconventional oil and gas development on the U.S. economy, energy future, and industrialization of rural landscapes, it is more than a little surprising that there is no comprehensive governance system in place to safeguard the public trust and to facilitate information collection and sharing. As development has proceeded, there has been a concerted push by industry to reduce the federal government’s role in management and relegate any regulatory oversight to the state level. This push has resulted in a long list of special exemptions for the oil and gas industry from existing major environmental federal laws (Table 2).



Importantly, public trust is not just a concern for politicians or affected communities but must also be earned by industry. Greater trust benefits companies by building a better relationship with the communities where they operate.

Despite this failure to manage the impacts of unconventional oil and gas production, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have in the past been effective at environmental regulation. Federal environmental laws and the accompanying regulatory systems for most types of industrial development are well articulated. They are largely implemented by the states with federal support and oversight, and most importantly have resulted in major improvements in the quality of air and water, toxic waste cleanups, and public health over the past half century. In addition to setting national standards for many industrial activities, the U.S. system of environmental laws provides extensive opportunity for informing the public and seeking their input to the policymaking process. This open process certainly requires time and effort and entails some cost, but citizens in a democratic society have a right to be informed and to voice their views. And the government, as well as industry, has an obligation to listen and be as responsive as possible.

Although states have environmental protection statutes that are often in parallel to the federal mandates, there is substantial inconsistency in their application and often a limited capability at the state level to assess, monitor, and enforce requirements. State regulation often relegates public input to notice and comment on permit applications. Public meetings may or may not be required. There is no clear requirement for alternatives to be considered, nor for a broader analysis of public health or environmental effects as there would be under federal authority. Therefore, exemptions from key federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and CERCLA (Superfund) for oil and gas development are a major concern. They also result in inconsistency in standards and management, lack of coordination with federal agencies, and the loss of basic protections for the public, including the opportunity to have greater levels of input. Together, all of these legal exemptions limit the gathering of critical scientific information on the effects of fracking on air and water quality, and consequently undermine public trust.

Earning public trust

In July 2013, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists held a forum in Los Angeles on Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking. The forum brought together a diverse collection of stakeholders, including scientists, policy specialists, industry, local government officials, and community groups. One of the oft-repeated points during the forum was the importance of communities developing trust in both industry and government. Community stakeholders who participated expressed the need to be included in the process, for their voices and concerns to be heard, and for their health and well-being to be considered a priority.

Open access to scientific information can help earn the public trust. Unfortunately, efforts to manipulate or otherwise impede the information flow to both the public and the scientific community have significantly undermined the public’s trust that risks are being minimized and competently managed. These efforts include the failure to fully disclose the chemicals used in fracking, the blocking of access to drilling sites for independent scientists, the lack of disclosure of industry involvement in academic studies of fracking, and legal settlements that prevent the release of industry-collected data. In fact, too many cases in which incidents of pollution or other problems have occurred have been met by concerted efforts by industry to quickly contain the information, block access to well sites, and impose legal confidentiality requirements as part of compensation for losses. The resulting lack of access to information makes it more difficult to document cases of air and water contamination and develop risk reduction strategies, further diminishing public trust in industry and government.

An integrated system of data collection, baseline testing, monitoring, and reporting is needed in order for scientists and decisionmakers to better understand and manage risks. The coordination and provisioning of such comprehensive data in a format that is easily available and accessible to health care and emergency workers as well as the affected communities are equally desirable.

Importantly, public trust is not just a concern for politicians or affected communities but must also be earned by industry. Greater trust benefits companies by building a better relationship with the communities where they operate. An open and responsive company has the potential to gain greater public support and mitigate future risks to business. Instead of pushing back against regulatory controls, the oil and gas industry can gain greater consistency and certainty by allowing the already well-developed system of federal laws to follow their charge of protecting public health and the environment. Part of the value of these laws is that they level the playing field so that all businesses work to the same standards. Working with, rather than against, the system of governance will result in greater sustainability of the industry itself and help mitigate against the fact that even a single accident or bad actor can cause a public and regulatory backlash against the entire industry.

To overcome the gridlock and suspicions in public conversations on fracking, decisionmakers should immediately enact federal policies that would require states to implement comprehensive baseline analysis and monitoring programs for air and water at all well sites. The collected information must be made publicly available and accessible to provide communities with trustworthy information about environmental quality and potential impacts on public health. This need is so fundamental that any delay will continue to add to the ill will toward and distrust of corporate actors. Plus, the costs of such programs are relatively modest as compared to either societal costs or industry profits.

In the important discussion of the national and global political, economic, and climate implications of fracking, we should not forget the need to understand and address its local impacts. Given the potential costs and benefits of unconventional oil and gas resources development on the world and the United States, debates over the proper course for energy development will certainly continue. But comprehensive and independent air and water quality data collection, before, during, and after fracking, made publicly accessible, along with a governance structure for monitoring, enforcement, and managing risks, will go a long way in informing the debate, building public trust, and securing better outcomes for industry and our democratic system.

Recommended reading

Energy Information Administration (EIA), Annual Energy Outlook 2013 with Projections to 2040 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy, 2013) available online at www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/pdf/0383%282013%29.pdf

IHS, America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the U.S. Economy, Vol. 3: A Manufacturing Renaissance—Executive Summary (Englewood, CO: IHS, 2013).

M. Levi, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Energy Future (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

R.V. Percival, C. H. Schroeder, A. S. Miller, and J. P. Leape, Environmental Regulation: Law, Science and Policy (New York, NY: Aspen Publishers, 2003).

Resources for the Future, State of State Shale Gas Regulation (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2013); available online at www.rff.org/rff/documents/RFF-Rpt-StateofStateRegs_Report.pdf

Union of Concerned Scientists, Toward An Evidence-based Fracking Debate: Science, Democracy, and Community Right to Know in Unconventional Oil and Gas Development (Cambridge, MA: UCS, 2013); available online at www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/center-for-science-and-democracy/fracking-report-full.pdf

Union of Concerned Scientists, Gas Ceiling: Assessing the Climate Risks of An Overreliance on Natural Gas (Cambridge, MA: UCS, 2013); available online at www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/clean_energy/climate-risks-natural-gas.pdf

Andrew A. Rosenberg ([email protected]) is director, Pallavi Phartiyal is program manager and senior analyst, and Gretchen Goldman is lead analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA. Lewis M. Branscomb is professor emeritus of public policy and corporate management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego, in the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

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Cite this Article

Rosenberg, Andrew A., Pallavi Phartiyal, Gretchen Goldman, and Lewis M. Branscomb. “Exposing Fracking to Sunlight.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 1 (Fall 2014).

Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Fall 2014