When presented with an opportunity to bring some federal clarity to the controversial issue of fracking, the Obama administration this week did one of the things it does best: It ticked off just about everyone.
Last week, the president rolled out new regulations for fracking that include requiring oil and gas developers to disclose the chemicals they use in the practice, and requiring them to build physical barriers between fracking operations and nearby water supplies.
The new rules, which take effect in June, only apply to public lands, but the thinking is that they could provide a regulatory template for states where fracking is active, including Colorado.
Naturally, both sides of the fracking debate have objections. Environmentalists say they don’t go far enough to protect water supplies and land, and the oil and gas industry claims the administration is overreaching. Representatives of the latter faction have already filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the moves.
Industry groups have long objected to disclosing the chemicals they use on the grounds, claiming that it would force them to divulge trade secrets, but their overall “drill-baby-drill” approach and ham-handed PR efforts have often alienated the people and communities most closely affected by their work. Meanwhile, environmentalists continue to insist that fracking is unsafe (and therefore needs more regulation) despite its decades-long track record of production.
The irony in all this is that fracking may not be the cash cow we once thought, at least in the near term. Conspiracy theories abound that suggest Middle Eastern oil cartels are purposely suppressing the price of their oil to make fracking less profitable, and some have suggested that Russia is actually funding anti-fracking movements in Western Europe to bolster the value of its own oil.
Whether it’s intentional subterfuge or simple market dynamics, American fracking has suffered recently as depressed oil prices have forced our oil and gas industry to pause or halt huge portions of its fracking business and lay off workers.
Oil prices will rise again at some point, and when that happens fracking will be back in vogue. Maybe our politicians can work with the industry during this lull to create regulations and exploration practices that everyone can live with once the boom starts rolling again. But the likelier outcome is a whole lot more squabbling.
—Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.