As Fracking Debates Roil, It's Time for National Standards | Commentary

Few developments on the energy landscape have been as disruptive as the spread of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. The technique has transformed the economy of communities across the country while raising concerns about safety and environmental impacts.

Fracking has benefitted many local and regional economies as drilling has brought new jobs and growth, particularly in communities that were previously struggling to attract business development. Over the past five years, direct employment in the fossil fuels sector has grown by 18 percent nationwide, while my home state of Colorado has seen even larger growth of nearly 30 percent. This level of activity, much of which is generated by new oil and gas development driven by fracking, has helped people and communities get by during the Great Recession and the ongoing recovery.

For all of the economic growth fracking has powered, concerns about safety and risks to drinking water and air quality have closely followed. With thousands of new drilling sites popping up in areas sometimes unaccustomed to energy development, environmental and safety regulators have been working to keep up. With an unfamiliar industry operating nearby many local communities have raised concerns about fracking.

While the tension between economic development and environmental and safety concerns is neither new nor unique to fracking, the discussions and political debates about it have grown heated. In my home state of Colorado, local communities with drilling sites nearby have fought for more control over fracking activity. After New York State announced a six-year moratorium on fracking, several towns in the Southern Tier region that depend on energy development for jobs have expressed alarm about their future economic viability.

I support fracking as long as it is done is a way that does not jeopardize safety or human health. To reduce the tension and begin a more constructive conversation about energy development and its local consequences, we can start by applying the protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act to fracking activity. We currently lack baseline water safeguards for fracking, and so it is not surprising that the public has little consensus about the best way to deal with fracking.

Here, the FRAC Act that I have championed can make a real contribution to this discussion and move energy policy forward. The FRAC Act would knit together the patchwork of different state regulations that the industry currently has to comply with and would set up a consistent and effective system to safeguard our precious drinking water from fracking operations. In addition, by requiring the disclosure of the chemical constituents used in the fracturing process while protecting proprietary chemical formulas — much like Coca-Cola must reveal the ingredients of Coke, but not its secret formula — we can provide the public the information they need without compromising confidential business information.

If we establish national standards on fracking activity that apply across the country, we will be able to have a clearer discussion about what constitutes safe activity. This won’t end our debates about fracking — nor should it — but reducing uncertainty will lead to better-informed choices for us all.

I was proud that my most recent version of the FRAC Act attracted bipartisan support in the 113th Congress, and as I prepare to reintroduce it with other concerned colleagues, I look forward to growing support for this idea. Communities across the country are struggling to deal with fracking activity in a rational way. We can change that by offering the public some basic protections and understanding. Without it, our energy portfolio will continue to be subject to deep turmoil. Instead, we should help inform the American people understand this issue and make reasoned choices that can move our country and our energy future forward.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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