Wednesday, January 15, 2014
As a resident of West Virginia, I am especially appalled at the disastrous chemical spill into the Elk River that has left 300,000 without safe water. My family and I are fortunate that we live well north of the spill and we have not been burdened by a lack of safe water. Still, our state, our friends, and our environment have been, and we can sense the suffering.
In the wake of disasters, there often follow what are known as “policy windows” that create opportunities for new legislation. G. Richard Shell describes the concept like this in Make the Rules or Your Rivals Will (Amazon link) :
Policy windows “open” in the wake of a high visibility event such as an expose, a scandal, a public-health crisis, or a disaster. They “close” when the legislature acts to address the problem or when some other news event pushes the issue off the front pages and diverts public attention elsewhere.
Some have noted that the disaster in West Virginia has not gotten its due on some of the news shows (see, e.g., Sunday Shows To West Virginia: Drop Dead!”, but the disaster has still been a high-profile media event.
This chemical spill highlights failures by the corporation and failures by the environmental regulators charged with oversight of such corporations. It is an issues the must be addressed, and should be addressed quickly. However, I am concerned that much of the dialogue related to spill may already be forcing the window closed. (To that point, it’s also not clear to me new legislation is as important as strict enforcement of current rules. Regardless, the window that will lead to mandating better enforcement, with increased funding to do so, will only be open a short period of time.)
Numerous outlets, from the Christian Science Monitor to the Daily Show, have linked the chemical spill to hydraulic fracturing (commonly called “fracking”). Although it’s true that chemicals are used in the hydraulic fracturing process, the spill here has nothing to do with that. It was chemical spill at a site where the chemical was not being used for its purpose, which is to wash coal in preparation for sale in the market. (Again, though, this is neither a coal nor a natural gas problem. It is a chemical spill and a failure of the chemical company involved and the regulators charged with oversight. Solar panels need toxic chemicals, too, so this is not simply a fossil fuel issue.)
As someone who spends a lot of time looking the impacts of energy-related regulation and the related economic, environmental, and social impacts, this misdirection concerns me. The main concern is that the focus will shift away from the clear and present concern presented by the spill: the lack of inspection and oversight of West Virginia chemical plants. That is the immediate and pressing issue raised, and adding separate (and largely distinct) risks and processes raised by the potential harms from hydraulic fracturing to the discussion is likely to distract from the danger staring West Virginia in the face.
To be clear, I am not saying there aren't risks from hydraulic fracturing. But I am saying that most of the risks are different than the one that left 300,000 West Virginian’s without water. I am saying that conflating the two is dangerous and misguided. And I am saying that West Virginia’s regulators need to do better.
In discussing hydraulic fracturing, I have written elsewhere:
One of the paramount concerns for both the oil and gas industry, as well as regulators and communities, should be that a company gets careless with their drilling methods or waste management processes, and that the carelessness leads to a major environmental disaster. The harm to the environment itself would be a concern, of course, but . . . this harm is one that should be universally recognized.
I continue to believe this is true, and it’s why I have called for increased use of baseline standards for all phases of hydraulic fracturing. Still, the best ways to address the risks from hydraulic fracturing are different in most cases from how we must approach increasing safety from chemical plants. It will serve all of us well to recognize that THIS disaster is not a fracking problem, and we should not approach it as if it is. Merging the two issues would be bad economic, environmental, and social policy. We’ve had enough harm to all three areas already.