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Fracking Legislation

As awareness of the dangers of fracking has grown, lawmakers have begun to step in. That’s true here in Pennsylvania as well as nationally. For Pennsylvania families affected by the fracking boom in their communities, fracking legislation may offer relief from the risks—but it can also be used to deny them an opportunity to protect themselves.

Fracking is widespread because of legislation passed by Congress in 2005. The section of the law known commonly as the “Halliburton loophole” exempted oil and gas companies from complying with the Clean Water Act during fracking. This made it profitable to drill in more difficult-to-reach underground oil reserves. That, in turn, reopened the huge Marcellus Shale oil field, which covers much of Pennsylvania. As a result, a great oil and gas boom has come to Pennsylvania—but at a high price. As communities around the state now realize, fracking carries significant risks, including contamination of drinking water, air and soil leading to permanent harm to human health, as well as accidents with gas pipelines or drilling equipment.

As these risks became clear, local, state and federal regulators have responded with new legislation. On the federal level, the Obama administration has proposed a law that would address the most serious risks, including weak well casings that are the most common cause of groundwater leaks. The bill would also require companies to disclose the brew of chemicals they use—another major problem with the Halliburton loophole. However, this proposal affects only wells on the land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which means it affects a fraction of the land being drilled. Most current wells are on private, state-owned or Forest Service lands that would be unaffected by the bill.

A bill that would regulate all fracking operations, the FRAC Act, is currently pending in Congress. The FRAC Act would remove the Halliburton loophole, requiring drillers to comply with federal clean water regulations. It would also require them to disclose which chemicals they inject into the ground as part of the fracking process. This is important to fracking opponents because without this list, it’s difficult for scientists to determine whether fracking has polluted the groundwater around wells. The Environmental Protection Agency would oversee regulation, though states would do the day-to-day regulating. But for political reasons, the FRAC Act may face an uphill battle to be passed.

Here in Pennsylvania, our legislature passed the controversial Act 13 in early 2012, only to see it overturned by the courts later the same year. Act 13 created a statewide zoning system that made oil and gas companies the only industry exempted from local zoning laws. The bill was seen as business-friendly, but local municipal officials from both parties opposed it because it took away their right to make their own zoning decisions according to local needs. Indeed, some municipalities have passed their own laws, such as a Pittsburgh City Council ban on fracking within city limits. With Act 13 repealed, it’s not clear whether Pennsylvania will try again to regulate fracking at the state level.

People whose health, lives and property values are at risk from fracking can’t wait for legislation to be passed and enforced. If you’ve suffered an injury from fracking in your community and you’d like to talk to an experienced attorney about your legal rights, Rosenbaum & Associates can help. You can call us today at (215) 569-0200 or send us an email.