Frack 2, Scene 1

  • A Dimock, Pennsylvania, resident pours a glass of water that came from his well after the start of natural gas fracking.

    Reuters/Tim Shaffer
 

In 2006, in the midst of the Rocky Mountain energy boom, Grand Junction and Palisade, Colo., lost a long battle to keep natural gas drilling off the forested mesa that supplies the two communities' drinking water. 

Now, the drilling boom has moved out East, and the political landscape of the oil and gas fight appears to have undergone a tectonic shift.

New York City's 1,900-square-mile watershed supplies about 9 million people, and the state has so far resisted public pressure to ban gas development there. But in late October, Chesapeake Energy Corp., reportedly the only company with holdings in the city's watershed, announced that it won't drill them. CEO Aubrey McClendon told the New York Times that developing the 5,000-acre swatch, a fraction of Chesapeake's 1.5 million acres in the region, wasn't worth the backlash: "Why go through the brain damage of that, when we have so many other opportunities?"

Chesapeake is the largest leaseholder in the Marcellus Shale -- a vast natural gas deposit beneath West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York -- where companies have rushed to secure holdings in recent years. Drillers there, like their Western counterparts, rely on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- blasting water, sand and potentially toxic chemicals into the rock to crack it open and release gas up the well. Fracked gas wells and drilling fluids -- the composition of which has long been guarded by industry as proprietary -- have been implicated in multiple instances of water contamination. Yet oversight has been left to the states: In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency decided, based on a questionable study, that it need not regulate fracking, and in 2005, Congress formally exempted it from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

But thanks in part to the Marcellus' proximity to major population centers (which, ironically, also makes its gas more valuable) concerns about pollution have moved into the national spotlight. Major media outlets have blitzed fracking with negative coverage. In late September, McClendon and John Pinkerton, the CEO of Range Resources Corp., another company with Marcellus holdings, called on the industry to be more transparent about the chemicals it uses. Chesapeake, which keeps a log of its fracking chemicals on its Web site, has even endorsed New York state's proposal to require drilling companies to register their products and disclose the compounds used.

Congress is also beginning to move. In late October, Obama signed a bill containing a measure that calls for the EPA to re-study the environmental effects of fracking, using "the best available science" and "a transparent, peer-reviewed process." And another bill -- Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette's FRAC act, introduced in June -- would eliminate fracking's exemption from the drinking water law and require companies to disclose the composition of drilling chemicals. Though that measure appears to have stalled, it's received a lot of attention from industry and the media. Co-sponsors in the House had snowballed to 37 as of press time -- nine of them from New York state. A twin measure in the Senate now has five.

But the bill has sparked opposition in the West, particularly in DeGette's home state of Colorado, which relies heavily on natural gas revenue and recently passed its own tough new environmental rules for the industry, including one that requires disclosure of drilling chemicals. Grand Junction and surrounding Mesa County have adopted resolutions against the FRAC Act, as have many of the state's other gas-patch communities and counties. Even Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter effectively came out against DeGette's measure this summer when he called for more study before more regulation. 

Ritter's stance isn't surprising: Like many Western leaders, he often favors a homegrown approach to managing natural resources. Plus, he may need to placate industry if he wants to be re-elected in 2010. Challengers seeking the Republican nomination -- including state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry of Grand Junction, who just dropped from the race -- have been quick to blame the state's economic woes in part on Ritter's gas rules; they came into effect just as the bottom dropped out of natural gas prices and dozens of drilling rigs around the state went idle. "Our state now has the worst reputation in the country as a place for the natural gas companies to do business," the Republican front-runner, former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis of Grand Junction, said in a recent press release. "Colorado's loss in jobs and revenue is a gain for other states, including Pennsylvania."

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...