Just about everyone who has followed he local and national news on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, knows that oil and gas corporations are putting immense resources into campaigns, lobbying, advertising, front groups, faux grassroots groups, and just about anything you can imagine, all in opposition to any new regulations, especially at the federal level of government.

Before going on, consider that fracking should not be viewed in isolation from the more extensive process of which it is one part. The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s extensive review of the evidence, released by the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee 90-Day Report on August 18, offers its assessments and recommendations. Here’s one that applies to how we should think about fracking as a multi-stage process:

“The Subcommittee has considered the safety and environmental impact of all steps in shale gas production, not just hydraulic fracturing. Shale gas productions consists of several steps, from well design and surface preparation, to drilling [vertically and then horizontally] and cementing steel casings at multiple stages of well construction, to well completion. The various steps include perforation, water and fracturing fluid preparation, multistage hydraulic fracturing, collection and handling of flow-back and produced water, gas collection, processing and pipelines transmission, and site remediation. Each of these activities has safety and environmental risks that are [should be] addressed by operators and by regulators in different ways according to location. In light of these processes, the Subcommittee interprets its charge to assess this entire system, rather than just hydraulic fracturing” Article

What are the benefits of this very complex and relatively new process, introduced only a decade or so ago? The corporations that have leading roles in the fracturing process claim that it will put big money in the pockets of landowners who lease their lands, create jobs in depressed local and state economies, generate tax revenues for all levels of debt-ridden government, and reduce carbon-emissions from coal production. If true, these are all plusses for the country. And, guess what, they are brought to you by “free” enterprise and such mom-and-pop businesses as BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Chesapeake Energy, Conoco Phillips, among others. There is no dissent from the corporate community generally. They all tell us that when shale gas mining ends at one fracked site or another, any “unlikely” health problems, degraded land, denuded woods, diminished aquifers, contaminated water, polluted air, and damaged roads and bridges will be fixed and brought back as good as new.

Thankfully, the big gas/oil corporations and their stalwart political allies in the halls of the US Congress and in statehouses across the country have faced opposition. They have been challenged by grassroots groups, environmental organizations, scientific researchers and experts, smart journalists at a host of internet websites, and others who want stiff regulatory measures on fracking, a moratorium, or an outright ban.

There are many indications that the opposition to shale gas mining is having some political effects. New York State imposed a moratorium on fracking, then enacted regulations on fracking, while continuing to apply the ban to NYC’s watershed. The City of Pittsburgh banned fracking. New Jersey has a one-year moratorium. But much of the opposition has settled on the regulatory approach.

Food & Water Watch points out that “at least 61 localities across the US have passed measures against fracking,” “over 1,000 cases of water contamination have been reported near fracking sites to date,” and “more than 100 groups filed a petition [during the first week of August] demanding that full health and safety information be made available for all the chemicals used in oil and gas development, including fracking chemicals.” A study by Mary Beth Adams, a US Forest Service researcher, which appears in the July-August issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Quality, “found that wastewater from natural gas hydrofrackturing in a West Virginia national forest quickly wiped out all ground plants, killed more than half of the trees and caused radical changes in soil chemistry.” (See more at Link to website

There is one noticeable effect of such opposition nationally. The US Energy Department and the White House have instituted a panel to assess the effects of fracking. If it had not been for the efforts of the opponents of shale gas mining, there would be no panel. That’s a good step, but a small one. It will take time for the regulations to be finalized. When they get to the U.S. Congress, though, forget about enough support for meaningful regulations on fracking. And it’s worrisome that President Obama is committed to increasing production of virtually all energy sources, including shale gas. See the White House report, “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” (March 30, 2011).

In the 2012 elections, the fracking issue will only be one among many issues. But the choice on this issue will likely be between Obama who will tilt toward some regulation of fracking and a Republican presidential nominee who will be committed to no regulation. In the meantime, opponents of fracking will have to deal with a Republican governor who proudly carries the deregulation banner.