The Government's New Federal Fracking Rules Are Here, But Do They Go Far Enough?

Issues of conservation, consumption, and the environment all loom large these days, or at least they should. With climate change's seemingly inexorable march going forward, and many countries desperate to implement reforms to lower carbon emissions, many people have turned to another environmentally caustic form of energy extraction, albeit a very different sort: hydraulic fracking. And Friday, March 20 is a big day relative to the fracking industry — the government's first new federal fracking rules were released, measures aimed at quelling public concern over the practice, and protecting the environment throughout an undeniably disruptive process.

For the uninitiated, here's how fracking works: long, deep wells are drilled into the ground to reach layers of natural gas-rich shale (deep-layer, mineral-laden sediment, basically) at which point a combination of water, chemicals, and sand is blasted into the rock, forcibly extracting the gas within. The fracking industry, along with an array of groups and typically business-oriented, conservative think tanks have insisted all along that fracking is a safe practice, while environmental activists, filmmakers, and researchers have disagreed — in particular, there's mounting evidence that fracking can cause earthquakes, and leaky well-casings have been implicated in water contamination.

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In other words, it's the latest environmental flashpoint issue in the United States, with the typical forces aligning in either camp. Obviously, there are some benefits to fracking that the federal government is eager to cash in on — ostensibly, natural gas is a far cleaner energy source than traditional methods of oil extraction (although methane leaks in both oil and fracking wells can negate that advantage). As such, it comes at little surprise that they're trying to roll out some safety regulations to rally public support for the controversial practice. Here's what's been announced so far, as detailed by The New York Times.

  • Government workers will be allowed to review the state of fracking wells, to ensure that they aren't leaking or in any way broken.
  • Companies engaged in fracking must report the contents of their subterranean chemical cocktail within 30 days of finishing its use.
  • It sets mandates for how companies store the waste materials left over from fracking, ideally improving safety.
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If you're thinking "wow, that's not very much," well, duly noted. While these rules may be better than the alternative, they may not win over many converts from the environmentalist left, or from anyone generally wary of the proposition.

The rules are slated to take effect on any fracking wells operating on federal or Native-controlled land in 90 days. And make no mistake, if it's going to be going on anyways, then they've a positive thing. Of course, given the myriad uncertainties and potential risks at play, you can understand why some people would rather the government devote huge investments in in pioneering new green technologies. But it's become clear, much as with the several-year odyssey of the Keystone XL pipeline, that progress will have to be made while the traditional energy industry and its political supporters continue to profit from a troubling morass.

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