By Christine Shearer / TruthOut

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 3 issued a statement last week that its preliminary tests of water samples near drilling and fracking sites in the Pennsylvania town of Dimock showed no health concerns, the group Water Defense and “Gasland” director Josh Fox went to Dimock to look at the EPA summaries themselves, which they say do report high levels of explosive methane, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals. The issue is raising renewed controversy over the increasing growth of unconventional gas drilling and fracking and the uncertainty around health and safety regulations.

By the 2000s, it was starting to look like the reign of coal in providing over half of US electricity was ending. Community opposition and changing economic conditions turned the tide on most of the over 150 new coal plants proposed by the George W. Bush administration. And the EPA was being pressured to implement or update a suite of overdue coal regulations, including coal waste, mercury, water pollution and greenhouse gases, among others, making coal less commercially competitive compared to other energy alternatives.

While some looked hopefully to renewable energy to fill in the gap, industry developments in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were ushering in what appeared to be a new era for “unconventional” natural gas. Suddenly, the race was on for shale gas and oil deep underground. Homeowners and cities across the US agreed to drilling leases on their land, spurred on by the promise of low impact and high royalties. Plus, gas releases fewer pollutants when burned than coal, including about half the carbon dioxide emissions, making it easy to portray as the ideal bridge to a clean energy future.

Although the deep drilling process was in many ways new – particularly the cocktail of chemicals, sand and water used to break up the shale and release the gas in what has become known as “fracking” – gas drillers received exemptions from seven federal regulations that apply to other industries, including the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Superfund law; and, most notoriously, the Safe Drinking Water Act, due to the “Halliburton loophole” in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Regulation and oversight were largely left to individual states, many of which were already overburdened, underfunded and under staffed.

By 2009, there were more than 493,000 active natural gas wells across 32 states in the US, almost double the number in 1990. And around 90 percent have used fracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry.

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