Tennessee Looks To Adopt New Fracking Regulations, But Do They Go Far Enough?

Last year the Legislature, operating on a directive from Gov. Bill Haslam's office, passed a law that consolidated and streamlined a number of boards. Under the legislation, the state Oil and Gas Board will be merged with the Water Quality Control Board. But before the law goes into effect on Oct. 1, the Oil and Gas Board will meet one last time, this Friday, in Nashville, at 9:30 a.m. CDT. Only one item is on the agenda, and it's not an exaggeration to say that it will affect the lives of Tennesseans for years to come.

That one solitary agenda item? The proposed rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas drilling in the state.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has been meeting with industry representatives and environmental groups for the past year and a half to introduce hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, regulations in the state—which will be a first since the state currently has zero regulation on the practice. Fracking is the mining process of pumping water, gases, and other chemical deep into the ground to extract natural gas or oil; the most controversial fracking has involved natural gas extraction from shale formations, such as the Chattanooga Shale, which covers most of Middle Tennessee. Critics claim fracking can cause well-water contamination and ground pollution, but the oil and gas industry has long held such claims are baseless.

Renee Hoyos, the executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network and one of the leaders in the push for oversight, says her organization took a moderate stance, asking the state to bring its regulations up to standards set by the American Petroleum Institute, the trade association that represents the U.S. oil and natural gas industry.

"And the state disregarded almost everything we asked for," Hoyos says. "It's a disaster, what they've done. They've made a mockery of the process."

Hoyos says that despite multiple public hearings and reams of public comments—the majority of which supported the stance of TCWN and other environmental groups—the regulations proposed by TDEC still do almost nothing to regulate fracking in Tennessee. She says if the new rules pass, public notice will only be required for wells using 200,000 gallons of water or more, which both environmentalists and industry insiders say rarely, if ever, happens.

"The public will be completely in the dark. Fracking will remain unregulated in the state, even though it went through all the motions," Hoyos says.

However, members of the oil and gas industry say the new regulations provide plenty of oversight. "We don't see any problems with fracking in the way it's done in this state," says Jim Washburn, a former president of the Tennessee Oil and Gas Association and a geologist based in Cookeville. Washburn is also a member of the Oil and Gas Board and will vote on the regulations on Friday; "I think they should be approved," he says.

Another board member, Knoxville's Pete Claussen, says he hasn't yet made up his mind about the new regulations.

"I'm going to have to hear both sides before I come to a conclusion," he says.

But Claussen seemed unfamiliar with any of the environmental groups' complaints about public notice or the lack of distance between an oil or gas well and a drinking water well (200 feet).

"There's a long distance between the shale and the water supply, like a mile," Claussen says. But a case study released in July by the Harpeth River Watershed Association says that in many places, the Chattanooga Shale is separated from the water supply by just 100 feet.

Still, Claussen insists the new regulations were written "to protect the public" and that many critics of them simply don't understand anything about how the oil and gas industry works.

"There were a lot of comments that were just uninformed. I hope that won't be the case on Friday," Claussen says.

Neither Washburn nor Claussen will retain their seats on the new board, but their votes, along with those of the four other members—Derek Gernt, Ken Haislip, Chuck Head, and Brian Hensley—will set the tone for environmental regulation—or the lack thereof—of the oil and gas industry for the future. From Hoyos' perspective, the future looks dim.

"The state is still unprotected. Water resources are still unprotected," Hoyos says.

An earlier version of this story identified Renee Hoyos as the president of the Tennessee Clean Water Network; she is the executive director. Also, the Water Quality Control Board did not ever have oversight of the Oil and Gas Board, but both were overseen by the Division of Water Pollution Control.