Tennessee's Oil and Gas Board approved some new rules Thursday concerning abandoned wells, bonding for new drilling sites, and closed a few other loopholes that state officials say will make enforcement of environmental standards easier.
However, a large group of environmentalists filled the board room at TDEC's Field Office in Knoxville to ask for some "fracking" rules.
"Fracking" is a common term for hydraulic-fracturing, also known as hydrofracking. It is a process used in drilling for oil and natural gas where companies drill deep below the surface and then horizontally through areas of shale. A pipe is then filled with about 98 percent water and a few other chemicals at a very high pressure to fracture the earth below to allow small bubbles of natural gas to be released and flow back up the water pipe.
The chemicals in the other two percent are of great concern to many, as the Environmental Protection Agency has stated the practice sometimes includes carcinogens, acids, and other toxic materials.
The controversial practice is blamed for environmental damage in parts of Pennsylvania and New York. On Thursday, the state of New Jersey fell just short of a full ban, but placed a moratorium on all frack drilling until more research can be conducted on its effects.
One of the primary concerns among environmentalists is potential pollution to ground water. The drilling process penetrates the water table en route to the shale deep below. Fracking generally includes several protective layers around the pipe to prevent leaching into groundwater. However, there are still concerns about the water that comes back up the pipe and how it is then disposed of via land application.
"If you are spraying it on the ground when it comes back up, where does that go? It eventually goes into the ground," said William Wilson with United Mountain Defense.
Another issue raised by the Tennessee Clean Water Network is that companies involved in hydraulic fracturing are not required to disclose what chemicals are used in the process. Therefore, they argue, residents near drilling sites would not be able to make any connection between possible contamination and the hydrofracking process.
Many of the environmental groups expressed dismay that Thursday's meeting on new rules and regulations did not include any reference to fracking. The groups recently met with TDEC on August 10 to discuss their concerns.
"We feel like we were ignored. We had 200 people sit and talk with them and not a single thing we said was in the proposal reviewed by the Oil and Gas Board in this meeting," said Wilson.
Jonathon Burr with TDEC said the concerns are not being ignored. Thursday's meeting was solely to discuss some proposed rule changes that were set in motion prior to addressing the issue of hydrofracking.
"We've already started the process of establishing guidelines for hydro-fracturing," said Burr. "We can't just stick all of the new concerns we are addressing in the middle of a process for an entirely different subject. We have another rules process that has started for us to discuss and address everyone's concerns about hydrofracking, so just because we are not talking about it today does not mean we're ignoring it. We all want clean water and safety, but you can't just jump into new rules immediately. These are things that are going to affect the future of the environment and people's safety for a long time to come and you have to get it right, take your time, and get the language right."
Burr estimated the process for proposing and approving new rules could take another six to eight months. That is a relatively expedited timeline considering many state environmental rules and regulations require a year or two before they are complete.
"But in the meantime, there is a lack of regulation and oversight for hydrofracking," said Axel Ringe with the Sierra Club of Tennessee. "Once we do get regulations in place, we are concerned the state will still fall short in terms of overseeing drilling companies. There will only be three employees overseeing every drilling operation in the state."
Ringe and others at the meeting said rules are especially needed as companies eye potential drilling sites to tap into the large underground resource known as the Chattanooga Shale Field. Chattanooga Shale lies beneath a large majority of East Tennessee and the field extends from Kentucky to Alabama.
"The natural gas industry has told us that hydrofracking will not be an issue because they don't plan to use lots of high pressure water. They are going to use Nitrogen, which we told them was great," said Renee Hoyos of the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN). "But as soon as we said let's put an all out ban on it since you won't be using that process, the industry backed off. They say they won't use it, but they don't want the process to be excluded. We need to get regulations in place as soon as possible and they need to go far enough to be effective."