Frank Sinatra once said that if he could make it in New York, he could make it anywhere. Thanks to new drilling rules, environmentalists can now say the same about Wyoming.
To review: Wyoming is as politically red and pro-fossil-fuel a place as exists in America. Nicknamed the "Cowboy State" for its hostility to authority, the square swath of rangeland most recently made headlines when its tax department temporarily suspended levies at gun shows for fear of inciting an armed insurrection. The derrick-scarred home of oilman Dick Cheney, the state emits more carbon emissions per capita than any other, and is as close as our country gets to an industry-owned energy colony.
So, to put it mildly, Wyoming is not known for its activist government or its embrace of green policies.
But that changed last month when Wyoming officials enacted first-in-the-nation regulations forcing energy companies to disclose the compounds they use in a drilling technique called "fracking."
From an ecological standpoint, fracking is inherently risky. Looking to pulverize gas-trapping subterranean rock, drillers inject poisonous solvents into the ground – and often right near groundwater supplies. That raises the prospect of toxins leaking into drinking water – a frightening possibility that prompted Wyoming's regulatory move. Indeed, state officials acted after learning that various local water sources were contaminated by carcinogens linked to fracking.
While the Wyoming examples may seem of little concern to those living outside of Flyover Country, they are more like canaries in the national coal mine (or gas well, as it were) – canaries potentially coming to a watershed near you. Today, 800,000 wells – many of which involve fracking – are being plumbed in a total of 34 states. That means fracking is now everywhere.
Not surprisingly, reports of drilling-related groundwater pollution have been pouring in from Colorado to Pennsylvania – and lots of these dispatches come from sites near population centers. Worse, such crises could increase as an unintended consequence of much-needed environmental initiatives. Specifically, with coal-fired power plants being converted into cleaner natural gas-burning facilities, demand for more gas supplies – and, therefore, more fracking – is mounting.
If this wasn't bad enough, the situation is further exacerbated by federal policymakers who have ignored the physician's "first do no harm" principle. Rather than initiating an informed public debate about fracking by forcing companies to at least admit what chemicals they are using, Congress has preserved fracking disclosure loopholes in the Community Right-to-Know Act, exempted fracking from the 2005 Energy Policy Act and blocked new legislation to better regulate fracking.
That has left states to try to deal with the mess.
Colorado, for example, requires companies to partially disclose fracking chemicals, but only in cases of an imminent health emergency (granted, an important step after a Durango nurse almost died when a drilling firm refused to disclose the fracking fluids she had been exposed to).
Others such as Pennsylvania and New York publish lists of fracking chemicals, but according to ProPublica, "these lists simply name chemicals that may be in any given well and do not detail the mixtures or concentrations."
Many, though, do almost nothing. And no state other than Wyoming does what the situation really requires: namely, provide to regulators a well-by-well accounting of chemicals along with the amounts of chemicals being used.
This standard should, of course, be the regulatory rule – not the exception. In a nation that learned harrowing environmental lessons from the General Electric/Hudson River affair and from the 1996 bestseller "A Civil Action," we are well aware of the dark intersection of industrial chemistry, groundwater pollution and public health.
If Wyoming can turn that knowledge into action, then so can – and must – every other state.