Onshore drilling is not the answer to off-shore drilling spills

200 foot flames at a 1998 natural gas well blowout near Bakersfield, CA. Courtesy Sandia National Laboratories.

Following the Gulf spill, proponents of the fossil fuel status quo have called for more onshore drilling as a safer alternative to offshore drilling. Don’t let them fool you. Drilling can have devastating environmental impacts for both our waters and our lands.

Take, for example, today’s Chevron oil leak of 500 barrels (or about 17,000 gallons) into a Salt Lake City creek. At least 100 birds were covered in oil, and water quality has certainly been affected.

Oil is not the only fossil fuel that poses risks—so does the supposedly safe fuel, natural gas.

For example, just as there were few (or at least unenforced) regulations of Deepwater Horizon’s drilling process, there are few regulations on hydro-fracking, a natural gas drilling process that is unregulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, despite regular and serious reports of it polluting drinking water in local communities.

Just earlier this month in Dish, Texas, a study found that the groundwater contained high levels of poisonous chemicals like arsenic and lead (up to 21 times above safe levels). Members of the community attribute this to the many natural gas wells nearby, especially considering that their water quality changed visibly after companies began to drill in their town. Because of a stipulation in the 2005 Energy Bill, drillers do not need to disclose which chemicals they use, nor do they need to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. This has been named the Halliburton loophole (after the company that invented the process), which effectively strips the EPA of any authority to regulate fracking.

Fear of making natural gas uneconomical may have pushed the recent withdrawal of an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act requiring disclosure of chemicals. The oil and gas industry has fought such initiatives, claiming that the chemicals are proprietary secrets and that the process is safe. Yet recent accidents show how unsafe drilling can be.

Toxic chemicals are not the only dangers.

Take for example just last week when three fracking accidents killed one person and injured at least 7 others in three different states.

In West Virginia on June 7, seven workers were injured after hitting a pocket of methane during natural gas drilling. A column of fire shot up into the air, just as it did later in the day at a Texas natural gas line (where one person was killed). This is called a blowout, wherein pressurized oil or gas erupts, which is what happened on June 3 in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, this same problem began the leak at BP’s Gulf of Mexico well.

Hopefully, lawmakers will wake up and regulate onshore oil and gas production. Proposed legislation, like the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which aims to close the Halliburton loophole, may gain in popularity in the wake of this series of blowouts.

You do not need to feel helpless, watching the numbers of gallons of oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. You can tell your representatives to support initiatives to regulate onshore drilling (or to increase renewable energy development to ease our addiction to fossil fuels), and you can help stop other related disasters. Tighter restrictions on offshore drilling should not mean loosening them for onshore drilling.

image: 200 foot flames at a 1998 natural gas well blowout near Bakersfield, CA, which burned for two weeks. Courtesy Sandia National Laboratories.