Oil, gas companies must be responsible

Recent technological developments have led to an oil and gas boom that has brought America closer to energy independence, created jobs, lowered fuel prices, and generated incredible profits for oil and gas companies.  While I believe that America’s near-term energy and economic future does require oil and gas development, I also think it should be done responsibly, with consideration for our environment and health.  

Unregulated and underregulated hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” operations pose a serious threat to America’s drinking water, natural resources, and quality of life. Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report concluding that “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hazardous hydraulic fracturing chemicals have the potential to impact drinking water resources.” The EPA has also confirmed that there are well-documented cases of air quality contamination associated with hazardous air emissions from fracking operations.

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Incidents of fracking-chemical spills and leakages are occurring at alarming rates. In my home state of Pennsylvania, there were nearly 600 documented cases of fracking wastewater and chemical spills in 2013 alone. In fact, the EPA estimates that there are as many as 12 chemical spills for every 100 oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania — and there are close to 8,000 active gas wells in the commonwealth right now. Each of these spills threatens precious water supplies and natural treasures.

High rates of fracking spills are due in large part to outdated federal regulations, inadequate state regulations and enforcement, and numerous loopholes codified in federal law. While the scale and impact associated with the oil and gas industry have grown dramatically since 1980, federal fracking regulations have simply not kept pace, and many states have enacted few or no fracking laws or regulations. This industry is being governed by a patchwork of inconsistent and irregularly enforced state laws. Without national standards in place, it is painfully obvious that many states will engage in a “race to the bottom,” to try to attract more oil and gas business with little regard to environmental costs.

Ominously, special interest groups and sympathetic federal lawmakers have inserted several loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Clean Air Act that exempt oil and gas companies from complying with the most basic environmental protections to which other American individuals and businesses must adhere. As a consequence, the federal government’s ability to monitor fracking operations and enforce safeguards is badly hobbled.

Congress must enact responsible and common-sense updates to federal fracking regulations and close unnecessary loopholes. Doing so will reduce the impact of toxic wastes and emissions, and improve transparency for the American public.

Right now, federal efforts to fight oil and gas-related pollution are practically impossible. For example, under current law, oil and gas companies are not required to have storm water runoff permits to prevent dangerous contaminants from washing into nearby streams and rivers. Without this requirement, federal regulators are limited in their oversight capabilities, and oil and gas companies are not required to formulate and disclose plans to mitigate nonpoint-source pollution. Similarly, oil and natural gas producers are explicitly exempt from federal regulations governing the safe disposal of hazardous waste. This means that if other industries produce a particular waste, the EPA will test it, and if it is deemed hazardous, special steps must be taken to dispose of it properly. However, if the exact same waste is produced by an oil and gas company, testing is skipped and special disposal requirements are ignored. Congress must pass sensible reforms to ensure that oil and gas companies are responsibly storing, handling and disposing of highly hazardous waste.

Furthermore, closing fracking loopholes will protect the public from the release of large volumes of toxic substances into the air. Toxic chemicals can be released into the air during the extraction, storage and transmission of oil and natural gas. However, loopholes in the Clean Air Act exempt fracking operators from some of the most basic air pollution standards. These loopholes must be closed to protect our atmosphere and health.

Not having federal regulation of oil and gas operations also means transparency suffers.  Enhanced federal government monitoring of fracking operations would give Americans access to information on the number, quantity, and types of chemicals oil and gas companies are injecting into the ground. The EPA has identified over 1,000 different chemicals that have been used during the fracking process, with an estimated 9,100 gallons of chemicals used for each well. However, under current law, oil and gas companies are not required to disclose to the American public what chemicals are being used. We must pass reasonable reforms to improve the transparency of oil and gas companies’ chemical use, to protect our air and water, and, ultimately, ourselves.

Due to the many environmental and health benefits associated with reforming federal fracking regulations, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and I have introduced a collection of legislation that would close dangerous fracking loopholes and update regulations. Our bills, collectively deemed the “Frack Pack,” would require oil and gas companies to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process, apply standard Clean Air Act provisions to fracking operations, mandate that oil and gas companies acquire storm water runoff permits, and direct federal agencies to monitor the disposal of toxic fracking waste. These bills would ensure that the federal government’s environmental protections keep pace with the immense scope and complexities of the modern oil and gas industry.

Cartwright has represented Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District since 2013.  He sits on the Natural Resources, and Oversight and Government Reform committees.