The federal regulatory process for protecting the nation’s environment generally goes like this: Congress passes a piece of legislation regarding the environment, such as the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, giving certain agencies, typically the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the authority to create technical regulations to enforce the law. It is then the EPA’s responsibility to make sure that involved industries meet the regulations and abide by the law. However, when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, legislation at the federal level does not exist,
preventing the EPA from enacting regulatory oversight of the practice, and leaving the controversial practice almost deregulated.
Deregulation at the federal level, however, does not mean that no regulations exist. “In the absence of clear federal guidelines, it remains up to state regulators to figure out how best to proceed with hydraulic fracturing,” explains Daniel McGlynn, an independent journalist covering science and the environment (McGlynn 2011, 1053). This system of regulations has both positives and negatives, and there exists both proponents and opponents to the current status quo.
The proponents of the system say that there are sufficient regulations already in place and an additional layer of federal regulations would be redundant and will slow development while increasing costs. “Industry officials and state regulators say that arrangement works well because each state has its own unique geological formations, environmental considerations and drilling techniques,” says McGlynn in an article for CQ Researcher (McGlynn 2011, 1056).
Environmentalists and opponents of the status quo, however, argue that without a baseline of regulations, dangers to the environment can slip through the cracks. As the industry grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for states to keep up with the necessary number of inspections and oversight.
A drill rig near the town of Pinedale, Wyoming. (Source: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)
To better understand this controversy, it is necessary to understand how the current situation came to be. This section will explore the history of federal fracking regulations, or the lack thereof, explaining the current loopholes that exist and the most recent attempts to close them. This section also will examine the role of the EPA in the current regulatory framework and notable developments concerning the agency.