Tennessee's New Oil and Gas Drilling Regulations Ignore 'Fracking'

The controversial technique has been linked to water pollution, chronic health problems, and even explosions near drill sites

Fracking. It's a bad word to a lot of people.

We're not talking about the Battlestar Galactica futuristic euphemism for that other f-word. No, we're talking about the real, physical thing—the pumping of thousands of gallons of water into an oil or gas well to stimulate production.

Hydraulic fracturing, as fracking is technically known, has been used, mostly in gas wells, since the late 1940s. But in recent years the technique has become one of the top concerns of environmentalists, after stories of water pollution, chronic health problems, and even explosions near drill sites in Pennsylvania and Texas made national news.

And that's why environmental activists like Renee Hoyos of the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) are more than a little disturbed that the new draft of the state's regulations on oil and gas drilling doesn't even mention fracking once.

"We are finding some wells in Tennessee where they're using high-power water—maybe 200,000 gallons," Hoyos says. "This whole notion that it's not happening here is wrong."

There's never been that much drilling in the state, either for oil or gas. According to the U. S. Energy Information Administration, Tennessee had 310 producing gas wells in 2009, up from 285 in 2008, but down from 400 in 2005 and around 700 in the 1980s. (Those 310 wells produced 5,478 million cubic feet of gas in 2009, but the state consumed almost 40 times that much, all piped in from elsewhere.)

But new technology has made it possible to horizontally drill for gas—imagine an L-shaped well spreading under the ground. Now, all of a sudden, the shallow Chattanooga Shale is ripe for drilling, and major oil companies have been leasing hundreds of thousands of acres in Tennessee.

The Chattanooga Shale runs from Kentucky down to Alabama, includes the northwestern tip of Georgia, and covers a massive chunk of Eastern and Middle Tennessee. The Tennessee Oil and Gas Association (TOGA) says that two-thirds of the state has the potential for gas production.

The shale is thinner and shallower than the deep Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York, where hydrofracking just one well can use over 3 million gallons of water. That's why the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) says that fracking isn't really an issue yet in Tennessee, despite what Hoyos claims—fracking in Tennessee will just never need to use millions of gallons of water.

Still, TCWN joined forces with a number of groups—United Mountain Defense, the Sierra Club, the Tennessee League of Women Voters, among others—to voice their concerns at a public hearing on the regulations last Thursday at TDEC's Knoxville office. A first hearing on the regulations was held in February, and TDEC will accept public comments through May 9. But Hoyos says she doubts any of the public hearings or public comments are likely to change anything in the regulations.

"TDEC actually reached out to [the oil and gas industries] to craft the new regulations. They don't reach out to us, to the environmental groups," Hoyos says.

Indeed, the July 2010 issue of TOGA's newsletter details a meeting in which the association's president, Jim Washburn, past president Scott Gilbert, vice-president Vicki Griffith, and director Bill Goodwin, sat down on July 13 with TDEC's Mike Burton, Don Owens, and Paul Schmierbach to look at the draft regulations. The newsletter quotes Washburn: "They have asked our association to review the changes and come back to them in August with our comments. We appreciate this opportunity." TOGA members were then invited to a meeting on July 26 at the Oak Ridge Country Club to review the regulations and draft comments.

Washburn also sits on the Tennessee's State Oil and Gas Board—the entity that must approve the regulations for them to become law. Another board member, Bill Ray, is also one of TOGA's directors.

That's part of the problem, environmentalists say—at least one-third of the board that will vote to approve the regulations also helped craft them, and they have a financial stake involved. The other part of the problem, they say? TDEC doesn't know what it's doing.

"TDEC can't regulate the gas industry effectively. They don't have the resources, they don't have the money," says Will Wilson of United Mountain Defense. He says that with just two inspectors for the whole state, the department can't possibly keeps tabs on whether every well in the state is following regulations to the letter. He says UMD has found several environmental violations at gas wells while doing its own fieldwork, which is why he's so concerned about the lack of fracking regulations—specifically, anything regulating the chemicals used in fracking.

A small percentage of any number of chemicals, from citric acid to diesel fuel to ethylene glycol to hydrochloric acid, are also used in hydraulic fracturing fluid. This means even when you aren't dealing with millions of gallons of water, you still have wastewater that needs to be properly treated after it's used—and that's if it doesn't contaminate the watershed.

"We the public don't really know what's going on out there. TDEC doesn't know what's going on out there," Wilson says.

But TOGA director Bill Goodwin says the environmentalists' concerns are nonsense—fracking fluid isn't getting into the watershed.

"We're going down two to three layers of casing and coming back up that same casing. There's no way anything gets out," Goodwin says. "If I get one drop of water leaking out, I've wasted $100,000, because that means the gas is leaking out."

Goodwin says almost all drilling in Tennessee does use fracking, though he says the majority of operations utilize nitrogen fracking, in which liquid nitrogen is pumped into the well (sometimes mixed with water, sometimes on its own).

"If we can't frack, we might as well not drill," he says. And according to the American Petroleum Institute, up to 80 percent of natural gas wells drilled in the next decade in the U.S. will require hydraulic fracking.

While Goodwin complains about environmentalists not understanding his business, he also suggests that a state registry of fracking chemicals used by each company at each well would be a good idea. Surprisingly, Goodwin even calls out TDEC for their relative lack of regulation regarding fracking fluid disposal: "We should have more of that," he says.

But according to a statement e-mailed by its communications director, Tisha Calabrese-Benton, TDEC is putting off fracking regulations for another day: "The current set of regulatory changes does not address fracturing or ‘fracking.' That does not mean the state can't or won't address that issue. But it is important that any regulatory changes are based on fact and sound science and the process of gathering that information is ongoing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently studying the issue of hydraulic fracturing, and Tennessee will use the results of those studies in determining whether rules need to be changed here. TDEC has also met, and will continue to keep open lines of communication, with both industry and environmental groups to get further information."

This is a lost chance, says Mark Quarles, a Nashville-based environmental consulting geologist who studied the draft regulations in depth on behalf of the Sierra Club. He points out that while the lack of regulations on fracking have gotten most of the attention, a big change in the draft rules is one that allows companies to temporarily abandon wells for up to five years, with another two years to then cap the well, meaning industry can start and stop production as gas prices go up and down, without stabilizing the site in the meantime.

"This is a big win for industry," Quarles says. "It allows a lot of wells to be drilled and for them to just sit there—whether or not they ever produce oil or gas."

In the state House of Representatives, a non-binding resolution is currently in committee that would "encourage" TDEC, TOGA, and the League of Women Voters and the Tennessee Conservation Voters to meet and develop fracking regulations. But even if it passes, and even if the groups can find common ground, Quarles says it might be too late.

"What we've seen in other states is if you wait a couple of years and have a gas boom without regulations, that's when the damage is done," Quarles says. "TDEC missed an opportunity to get it right."