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Fracking the Commons: Why Your Public Lands Are Under Assault by Oil and Gas Drilling

A significant amount of fracked wells are currently drilled on federal lands—that is, public land, our national commons.

Photo Credit: Ecoflight


Editor's note: You can take action to ban fracking on federal lands here.

As a Forest Supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s, I put a 15-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. I made this controversial decision because the ecosystems on the Front are irreplaceably rich and diverse, and because I’d witnessed first-hand the cultural connections (in spirit, mind, and body) that countless people both near and far had to this extraordinary place. The towering limestone cliffs, the wealth of wildlife, and the sheer wildness resonate deeply with the human psyche, and have done so for countless generations for over ten thousand years.  

I thought I’d seen the worst of the oil and gas industry during that battle: its death-grip on public agencies, its demand for ever more leases, and its running roughshod over drilling regulations with impunity. But some years later I learned about an insidious new threat from the fossil fuel industry—hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In fracking, fluid is injected into underground shale formations to break them apart and release trapped natural gas (and increasingly, oil). Unfortunately, fracking fluid contaminates our water, fracked gas escapes into the atmosphere, and the breakneck pace of drilling for these low-quality wells wreak havoc on wildlife habitat and human communities alike.

In the early 2000s, fracking was mostly confined to the Southwest and seemed little more than a crazy, expensive, last-ditch effort to squeeze the last bits of gas out of old fields. But as the easy-to-get fossil fuels have been depleted, and as government subsidies for fossil fuels have increased, such last-ditch efforts have become the industry standard. Today, the battle I fought over the Rocky Mountain Front seems small in comparison to what the fossil fuel industry aims to do across the entire country with fracking, including on public lands.

(Click below to view a slideshow about fracking's impacts from Post Carbon Institute's Energy Reality campaign.)


Public lands, private profit

In recent years, fracking has spread from the rugged and remote public lands in the American West to the well-populated, bucolic landscapes of Pennsylvania. After decades of the oil and gas industry quietly cracking apart the crust of the earth (well, “quietly” if you aren’t in the vicinity) people are finally sitting up and taking notice. Communities across the US are attempting to ban fracking to protect their citizens, and so far over 250 have succeeded. Vermont has a ban, and Maryland and New York have moratoriums in place. The fight is far from over: Pennsylvania, for example, has passed a draconian piece of legislation [1] that strips communities of the ability to regulate, where, when and how fracking should occur.

But local and state-level lawmaking, while important, addresses only part of the picture. A significant amount of fracked wells are currently drilled on federal lands—that is, public land, our national commons. Ostensibly we’re the owners, and federal and state land management agencies are supposed to listen to us and to speak for citizens unborn, the future owners.

Groundwater chemical injections are indeed regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act…but in 2005 Congress exempted fracking fluids from that law. Fracking is also exempt from the Clean Air Act. And the Clean Water Act. If it’s so safe, why does it need to be exempt from some of the most important laws protecting our health and our collective commons? Even new regulations promulgated in May 2013 are watered down [2] and do little to curb or cure the myriad problems associated with fracking. 

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