Will Virginia run roughshod over local zoning power to help gas drilling companies?

Although Virginia’s 2017 General Assembly session is still more than three months off, fossil fuel interests will already be planning how to win more special favors from the legislature. In past years they’ve gotten subsidies or a relaxation of environmental safeguards. This year, it could be help dealing with pesky local governments that want to protect communities from fracking. Guest blogger Linda Burchfiel brings us the story.

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Even in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia, where local governments have only the authority conferred on them by the state, localities have some authority over matters that affect the daily life of residents. Traditionally they have authority to enact zoning ordinances to maintain their sense of community. Recently, counties have started to use their authority to limit the ability of natural gas drilling companies to conduct fracking operations within their borders. Now the industry is pushing back—hard.

Indeed, any action that limits fracking sends the oil and gas industry into high gear. The industry is already working to undermine new state regulations governing disclosure of chemicals used in fracking operations. Based on the experience of other states, we expect to see the industry seek legislation in Virginia’s upcoming General Assembly Session to block local authority over fracking.

New forms of “unconventional drilling,” including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” make drilling for natural gas potentially profitable in parts of Virginia that have no history of oil and gas development. Fracking companies have been travelling to new areas, leasing acres of land and approaching local governments for permits. Before considering permits, some local governments have insisted on researching fracking and its consequences.

This happened in 2010 in Rockingham County, which sits in the Shenandoah Valley atop a sliver of the Marcellus Shale. When a Texas-based drilling company requested permits to conduct fracking operations there, county supervisors decided they had better educate themselves on the subject. A Republican board member took the lead, investigating the safety records of fracking companies in other states and sounding the alarm about his findings. Facing growing opposition and unwilling to wait, and with falling gas prices making fracking in the county less profitable, the drilling company eventually withdrew its request.

Fracking also threatens the Tidewater area, where the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Taylorsville Basin may contain over a trillion cubic feet of shale gas in an area underlying parts of more than a dozen Virginia counties. (A map of the Taylorsville Basin can be found here.) But while the potential for industry profits may be good, the potential risks are much greater. This low-lying region is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and contains the Potomac Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking, agriculture and industry for almost half of Virginia’s population. In recognition of these unique environmental challenges, the Virginia Oil and Gas Act includes special provisions to protect the Tidewater Region. Two such provisions are the requirement of an environmental impact assessment for a permit, and a prohibition of drilling for oil or natural gas within 500 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or any tributary.

To add further safeguards, the King George Board of Supervisors proposed an ordinance in August 2015 with specific restrictions intended to protect the community from the noise, traffic and environmental degradation of fracking. After the gas industry threatened to sue, the Board held a new public hearing this year, then passed the ordinance with only slight modifications. Restrictions include a prohibition on well drilling within 750 feet of a waterway or road or occupied building, limiting drill sites to four acres, prohibiting holes from being bored within 100 feet of a property line, and requiring each company interested in drilling to apply for a special exception permit and to submit extensive information.

Although the oil and gas industry had tried to influence the Board’s decision with the threat of long and expensive litigation, its legal theory is weak. A 2015 opinion by Attorney General Mark Herring affirms that municipalities have the authority to use zoning ordinances to restrict fracking, including authority to prohibit it entirely within a jurisdiction. His opinion overturned that of the previous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who had stated that localities could not “ban altogether” oil and gas exploration and drilling through zoning ordinances. Even Cuccinelli, however, had conceded that a county “may adopt a zoning ordinance that places restrictions on the location and siting of oil and gas wells that are reasonable in scope and consistent” with applicable state laws.

If the industry can’t win in court, though, it may attempt to use the legislature to pass legislation taking away local governments’ ability to limit fracking. Given the historic influence the fossil fuel industry has on Virginia’s General Assembly, this poses a serious threat to localities that want to control their own fate.

The industry has an ally in this effort: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying organization heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry. ALEC counts many conservative Virginia legislators among its members, as well as utility giant Dominion Resources. ALEC members draft and share model state-level legislation that favors corporate interests. ALEC claims to support sending power back to the local level, but in fact it consistently favors unlimited fossil-fuel extraction and burning, regardless of ALEC’s ostensible principles. So if local governments want to restrict fracking, while state legislatures are less inclined to do so, ALEC will likely favor blocking local government restrictions.

A recent news account revealed that ALEC and its local government affiliate, the American City-County Exchange (ACCE) are working to block local government action in states where the state legislature is more corporate-friendly than local governments. Thus we should be prepared to see ALEC insert itself in Virginia’s legislative process to try to block local restrictions on fracking.

Indeed, ALEC has already been working in other states to stop local governments from restricting fracking. This includes Texas, which passed a preemptive ban on local government efforts to stop fracking in 2015. In Florida, a similar ALEC-supported ban was defeated after opponents pointed out that the measure threatened localities’ traditional control over other local issues, such as education.

Linda Burchfiel is the Fracking Issues Chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Governor McAuliffe considers changes to Virginia fracking regulations, currently among worst in nation

Over the past year, guest blogger John Bloom has been studying Virginia’s regulations governing hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling–fracking–and assessing the commonwealth’s readiness to welcome natural gas drilling companies into communities where they have never operated before. With the McAuliffe Administration preparing to address the issue for the first time with new regulations, I asked Bloom to take over the blog this week and tell us how things look. –I.M.

IMG_0634Proposed changes to Virginia’s gas drilling regulations are on their way to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe for review. If he approves, the revisions will go out for public comment. Public safety and environmental advocates generally welcome the changes, as far as they go. There’s just one problem: the changes fail to address many of the serious risks posed by fracking.

The dismal state of Virginia’s regulatory regime has become a pressing issue because, if the fossil fuel industry has its way, unconventional shale gas drilling – fracking[1] — will soon be a part of Virginia’s landscape. The gas industry sees opportunities to drill into the Marcellus Shale in western Virginia and the Taylorsville Basin in Tidewater Virginia, where 80,000 acres are under lease already.

Is Virginia ready for this kind of fracking? The fracking industry seems to think so, and Virginia’s Division of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the agency in charge of regulating gas drilling, seems to think its regulations just need a few tweaks to make fracking safe in Virginia.

Before deciding whether or not a few tweaks is all we need, let’s consider the views of a drilling industry insider. According to Louis Allstadt, Mobil Oil Corporation’s former head of oil and gas drilling in the Western Hemisphere, “making fracking safe is simply not possible, not with the current technology, or with the inadequate regulations being proposed.”[2] He warns that “the industry will tell you that fracking has been around a long time. While that is true, the magnitude of the modern technique is very new.” Fracking now requires 50 to 100 times more chemicals and water than older wells, according to Allstadt. “This requires thousands of trucks coming and going. It is much more a heavy industrial activity.” Further, he warns that methane, which is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, “is leaking from wells at far greater rates than were previously estimated.”

The health and environmental risks of fracking include a litany of short-term and long-term threats to air, water, land, and human and animal health. The risks come from many directions, including the drilling process, the fracking process, the chemicals used, which typically include potent carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, the handling and disposal of large quantities of toxic wastewater, potential earthquakes, the pipelines and compressor stations needed to transport the gas, and disruption of local communities with lights, noise, heavy truck traffic, and the constant prospect of disastrous explosions and other industrial accidents. For an excellent review of recent findings, check out A Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction), published by Concerned Health Professionals of New York in December 2014.

After carefully studying the risks, Maryland and New York recently declared statewide moratoriums on fracking. Like Allstadt, they found that the risks outweighed the benefits. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, have embraced drilling and are learning the hard way that modern fracking – if it’s going to happen at all – requires much more careful regulatory oversight than traditional drilling.

Proposed Revisions to Virginia’s Drilling Regulations Are Grossly Inadequate

Virginia’s regulations start off in an embarrassing place. According to a 2013 survey of shale gas regulations across the country, using two different methodologies, Virginia had the least stringent regulations of all 31 states with actual or potential shale gas production.[3] Given that, and given the rapid pace at which other states are learning from mistakes and tightening regulations, you might expect Virginia to study the potential risks of modern fracking techniques carefully, as Maryland and New York did, before deciding whether to allow them. At the very least, you might expect Virginia to conduct a rigorous review and update of its regulations. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

Instead of a thorough review, Virginia’s DMME conducted a controlled review intended to update only a few aspects of the regulations. A driving force behind the review seemed to be a request by the drilling industry for Virginia to join an industry-endorsed approach to disclosing fracking fluid ingredients while continuing to protect alleged trade secrets.

DMME convened a review panel that notably lacked anyone from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) or anyone else with public health expertise, despite the major public health issues involved in fracking. DMME staff led the panel through a handful of issues. The panel came up with exactly what was intended: piecemeal updates when a broader effort was badly needed. When environmental groups proposed a more thorough regulatory review, they were told their proposals were simply beyond the scope of what DMME would consider.

So what are the shortcomings of the proposed revisions? There are many, and the devil is in the details. Here are just a few examples:

  • The regulations would continue to allow drilling wastewater to be disposed of by spreading it on roadways, agricultural and forest land. Other states have correctly concluded that this is simply not a safe way to dispose of fracking waste.
  • The regulations would continue to allow the industry to use open pits to store toxic wastewater, while other states such as Pennsylvania now require closed tanks to avoid leaks, spills, and harm to wildlife.
  • The regulations authorize disposing of wastewater at an “offsite facility,” yet water treatment plants in Virginia cannot effectively process fracking waste. This would result in toxins passing through untreated, damaging Virginia’s waterways. How toxic wastewater will be tracked and disposed of needs to be more clearly spelled out and regulated, as it is in other states.
  • In western Virginia, drilling companies would still be allowed to bury drilling muds and cuttings (drilling waste products) at the well-site instead of hauling them offsite for safe disposal. This practice can result in heavy metals, radioactive materials, and other toxins leaching into the groundwater and contaminating soils. That practice is now forbidden in Tidewater Virginia, reflecting a growing double-standard between protections offered to eastern versus western parts of the state. Is western Virginia somehow less worthy of protection?
  • Virginia’s regulations contain no testing requirements or limits on hazardous air pollution and methane emissions from gas drilling operations, despite the recognition of methane as a potent greenhouse gas. Federal regulations may provide a floor in this area, but Virginia should enact higher standards.
  • Virginia regulations contain only a single setback requirement that wells be at least 200 feet from an occupied building – literally a stone’s throw. Other states have developed much more protective siting requirements taking into account floodplains, public water supply watersheds, fisheries, special lands, schools, hospitals and other important considerations. Virginians should have similar protections spelled out in regulations.

Correcting these deficiencies, and many other suggestions made by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, were rejected as beyond the scope of DMME’s review.

Now It’s Up to Governor McAuliffe

Three actions are needed at this point, and all of them fall squarely within the authority of Governor McAuliffe. The Governor should:

  1. Direct his Administration to conduct a broad study of the health, environmental, economic and other risks and benefits of unconventional shale fracking in Virginia, so that a considered decision can be made about whether these new forms of fracking should be allowed, and if so, what regulations are needed.
  2. Direct DMME to conduct a thorough regulatory review that takes into account the findings of the Administration’s study and the extensive lessons learned from other states.
  3. Direct that no permits for unconventional shale drilling be approved until the first two steps have been completed.

As long as he takes the steps outlined above, it doesn’t matter much what the Governor does with the weak piecemeal regulatory revisions currently under his review. They could be folded into the broader regulatory review or enacted separately. The important thing is that the Governor isn’t fooled into thinking that these revisions are an adequate response to the threat fracking poses to Virginia’s health, safety and environment.

Taking these three steps should not be difficult for Governor McAuliffe. It would put into practice precisely the position on fracking that he took as a candidate in 2011:

“We should not do any of these techniques here in Virginia until everyone is 100 percent – 100 percent – sure of safety as it relates not only to the watershed but everything that comes off of that, as it relates to uranium, natural gas fracking… Let’s look at all the alternatives. Wind is clean, wind is safe. Solar is clean, solar is safe. So let’s get everything moving forward (while) studying these other things.”[4]

*  *  *  *

John Bloom, a public interest consultant, is chair of public health issues for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and serves on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club’s Mount Vernon Group.

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] As used here, “fracking” and “unconventional drilling” refer to newer forms of high volume hydraulic fracturing, or similar forms of well stimulation using liquid nitrogen or other materials, combined with horizontal drilling.

[2] Allstadt was referring to draft regulations in New York, which were much more stringent than Virginia’s. See Brian Neering, Albany Times-Union, April 22, 2014, “Former Mobil Oil exec urges brakes on gas fracking,” available online at http://www.timesunion.com/business/article/Former-Mobil-Oil-exec-urges-brakes-on-gas-fracking-5422292.php.

[3] Nathan Richardson et al, The State of State Shale Gas Regulation, at pages 18, 20 (June 2013), available at http://www.rff.org/rff/documents/RFF-Rpt-StateofStateRegs_Report.pdf.

[4] Terry McAuliffe, in an interview with Jan Paynter, Host, Politics Matters, September 2011. Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFvDrh92xpM.

 

 

In reversal, Virginia AG says localities may ban fracking

fracking signVirginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued an official advisory opinion on May 5 holding that Virginia localities have the right to prohibit hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) as part of their power to regulate land use within their boundaries. The letter reverses a two-year-old opinion by former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Herring’s opinion cites §15.2-2280 of the Virginia Code, which grants broad zoning powers to localities. These include the power to “regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine” land uses, such as “the excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.” Thus, writes Herring, “I conclude that the General Assembly has authorized localities to pass zoning ordinances prohibiting fracking. The plain language of the stature also authorizes localities to regulate fracking in instances where it is permitted.”

Herring’s opinion comes in a letter to Senator Richard Stuart, who had asked whether Virginia law allows localities to prohibit “unconventional gas and oil drilling,” commonly known as fracking, and whether they may use their zoning authority “to regulate aspects of fracking, such as the timing of drilling operations, traffic, or noise.”

The letter overrules a January 11, 2013 opinion by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, which held that the General Assembly had preempted localities’ right to regulate or ban drilling when it passed the Virginia Gas and Oil Act. Under §45.1-361.5, localities may not “impose any condition, or require any other local license, permit, fee, or bond to perform any gas, oil or geophysical operations which varies from or is in addition to the requirements of this chapter.”

But, Herring notes, the statute “also includes a savings clause stating that the Act does not ‘limit or supersede the jurisdiction and requirements of . . . local land-use ordinances.’” Thus, it explicitly preserves local zoning authority to prohibit or limit fracking.

Herring concludes, “To the extent that the 2013 Opinion conflicts with this conclusion, it is overruled.”

Interestingly, if localities choose to restrict fracking but not prohibit it, they may actually leave themselves more open to challenge. Herring’s opinion reaffirms that portion of Cuccinelli’s opinion that upheld the right of localities to impose some restrictions on fracking, short of outright prohibition. However, the restriction must be “reasonable in scope” and “not inconsistent with the Act or regulations properly enacted pursuant to the Act.” As a result, a fracking company might have a better shot at challenging a restriction than it would an outright ban.

Herring adds, “Determining the extent to which particular zoning restrictions on fracking may possibly be preempted by state law will be governed by the particular facts, restrictions, and regulations at issue. Consequently, I can express no opinion on whether any particular zoning restriction has been preempted.”

Dominion’s natural gas gamble looks risky for ratepayers

Opposition to Dominon's planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline has spurred protests from landowners and environmental advocates and led to more than 5,000 comments to the McAuliffe Administration opposing the pipeline. Photo courtesy of Linda Muller.

Opposition to Dominon’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline has spurred protests from landowners and environmental advocates and led to more than 5,000 comments to the McAuliffe Administration opposing the pipeline. Photo courtesy of Linda Muller.

Dominion Resources and its regulated subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, are gambling big on natural gas. But while the utility giant will be a winner if gas prices stay low over the next 20 years, the risk of losing this bet is very real—and the risk is being borne disproportionately by Virginia consumers.

Ever since the shale gas boom sent natural gas prices into a tailspin beginning in 2008, Dominion has increasingly been putting its chips into gas. Its Virginia subsidiary just completed a 1,329 megawatt (MW) natural gas plant in Warren County, began construction last year on a 1,358 MW gas plant in Brunswick County, and last month announced plans for a 1,600 MW plant in Greenville County, to be operational in 2019. Virginia ratepayers will foot the bill for construction costs, plus the cost of operating and fueling these mammoth plants for decades to come.

But while Virginians tend to think of Dominion as an electricity provider, its bigger business line is in natural gas transmission and storage. According to the Dominion website, its subsidiary Dominion Transmission, Inc. maintains 7,800 miles of pipeline in six states and operates what it says is one of the largest underground natural gas storage facilities. Another subsidiary operates 1,500 miles of pipeline in South Carolina and Georgia. The company is moving aggressively to add and upgrade compressor stations and build additional pipeline capacity in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

It is also angling to add a massive 42-inch diameter, 550-mile gas pipeline to run from West Virginia through Virginia to the coast in North Carolina. Promising a vast new supply of cheap fracked gas for industrial users, Dominion has won the support of lawmakers like Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe while galvanizing opposition from landowners and environmentalists.

Meanwhile, Dominion has another game afoot, with plans to begin exporting liquefied natural gas from its Cove Point, Maryland facility. Upgrading the facility will cost the company $3.8 billion, and running the liquefaction facility will require 240 MW of power (using more natural gas). Natural gas is so much more expensive in foreign markets that Dominion considers the gamble worthwhile, even as it cites a U.S. Energy Information Administration study for the proposition that little or no natural gas would be exported if the U.S. price “increases much above current expectations.”

All of these ventures depend on one crucial assumption: that natural gas prices will remain low for as many years as it takes to fully recover the cost of these investments, and then some. For electric generation, moreover, gas has to be able to outcompete other fuel sources. That includes not just coal and nuclear, both of which are being abandoned in droves in the face of cheap gas, but also new sources like solar and wind, which have trended steadily downward in price over the past two decades. In some regions of the country (although not yet Virginia), wind and solar prices already outcompete natural gas.

Gas does have the advantage of dispatchability—the ability to provide power according to the peaks and valleys of demand, allowing it to fill in around variable energy sources like wind and solar. That makes gas vital for backup generation, at least until power storage technologies become cheaper. But it wouldn’t justify the large-scale shift to gas for baseload generation, as Dominion’s plans envision, unless the company is right that gas prices will stay low.

If Dominion’s assessment of the market is wrong, its shareholders will take a hit. Higher natural gas prices could make the export business fizzle, and there might not be enough customers to justify the pipeline buildout. That’s why the company is moving so quickly to build the three massive new natural gas generating plants in Virginia under the ownership of its regulated subsidiary. Dominion is protecting its bet by locking Virginia electricity customers into gas for the long term, guaranteeing itself a market not just for its natural gas generating plants but also for its pipeline business. If the shale boom becomes a bust, or if prices rise to pre-boom levels, it will be Virginia ratepayers who pay through the nose or get stuck with stranded assets.

How big the risk is depends on whom you ask. The gas industry claims supplies will be sufficient to meet demand for decades to come. The U.S. Energy Information Agency, that voracious consumer of yesterday’s news, largely agrees (though it has more recently begun tempering its enthusiasm). If the optimists are right, production from the major shale gas plays will increase 40% by 2030 over today’s production levels, enough to support the mad rush to gas by Dominion and other utilities like it, without upward pressure on prices.

But a more pessimistic view is gaining adherents. As described in the December 2014 issue of the journal Nature, a team of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers and economists at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) has been analyzing assumptions behind the industry’s rosy outlook, and concludes it is wrong. Instead, the UTA study indicates production of natural gas from the “big four” shale plays will slow significantly after 2016, peak by about 2020, and then decline, dropping 20% from current levels by 2030. If so, the amount of natural gas coming to market in the U.S. will be less than half of what the optimists expect. The upward pressure on prices will be enormous.

The UTA team joins a growing chorus of doubters, whose studies suggest that the shale juggernaut can’t be maintained profitably. If these pessimists are correct, we should begin seeing evidence of it well before 2020. For now, there is at the least a very serious risk that cheap gas won’t last, and anyone who can’t afford to lose big would be well advised to wait it out.

IMG_0634There are other reasons Virginians should be wary of over-investment in natural gas infrastructure, both generating plants and pipelines. The need to fill pipelines will put pressure on the state to welcome fracking companies, both in the Marcellus shale in the western part of the state, and in the Taylorsville Basin in the east. Until 2010, Dominion itself owned gas drilling leases, and according to the Center for Media and Democracy, “Dominion is a member of several special interest groups that push for expanded drilling rights and limited or no regulation of fracking.”

With pollution of air and water a serious concern, and given the state’s tradition of lax regulation on industry, some localities are already looking for ways to exclude drilling companies from their borders. If we are going to have this fight, it shouldn’t be because one powerful corporation made a bad bet.

Finally, of course, there is the climate cost of natural gas. As we congratulate ourselves for leaving coal in the rear-view mirror, we need to recall that we have a long way to go to reach the carbon-free grid, and stalling out at the halfway point isn’t grounds for celebration.

Natural gas has a role to play in the transition period before wind, solar, and other carbon-free sources take over permanently, and it will remain useful as a back-up source when wind and solar aren’t producing power. But a wise energy policy today focuses on developing those renewable sources as fast as possible, reducing demand through investments in energy efficiency, and using natural gas as a backstop rather than as a primary source of power.

This approach reduces risk to the national economy if shale gas production declines, and it reduces risk to ratepayers stuck paying whatever the price of natural gas may be when demand outstrips supply.

Dominion Resources is an investor-owned corporation. As such, it is entitled to place risky bets in the hopes of making a killing for its shareholders. What it is not entitled to do is to shift the risk of losing the bet onto its captive ratepayers in Virginia.

With the odds so stacked against consumers, Virginia should refuse to play.

Thanks go to Richard Ball, PhD., Energy Chair of the Virginia Sierra Club, for his research and analysis of shale gas supplies.

The trouble with natural gas

Natural gas was supposed to be the answer to all our energy dreams. It’s produced in America, cheap, plentiful, and guilt-free, like the fuel version of Diet Coke. In the dream, it is a lifeline for struggling family farms that can make money leasing their mineral rights. It will wean us off dirty coal for generating electricity, and yet be so cheap that poor people don’t have to be cold at night. It will power the American manufacturing renaissance. It will bring down carbon emissions and stop global warming from happening, making it the savior of the whole world, including Greenland’s glaciers, the coral reefs, the polar bears, and civilization itself.

The new technique of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, or “fracking,” has unlocked vast supplies of methane trapped in shale formations across the country, driving down the price of natural gas to historic lows and promising a supply that the government estimates will last 92 years at current consumption levels. Electric utilities have been switching from dirty coal to “clean natural gas” at record rates.

But instead of ushering in a future of boundless clean energy, natural gas has been setting off alarm bells all over the country. First, there are those family farmers and other landowners who leased their land for fracking and now say it has contaminated wells and surface water, polluted the air, killed farm animals, ruined crops, and made their lives a living hell with all-day, all-night truck traffic.

The heck with them. They signed contracts. Caveat greedy landowner, right?

Let’s offer a little more sympathy to their neighbors who suffer the consequences without getting lease payments. But keep in mind that the gas industry denies all charges. None of this happened. Or if it did, the ruined water wells were due to naturally-occurring methane or other chemicals in the area, and it is an unlucky coincidence that the pollutants reached hazardous levels in the drinking water aquifer shortly after a gas company drilled down through it en route to the natural gas thousands of feet below, with impenetrable rock layers in between.

I once heard a gas industry lobbyist inform a room full of conference attendees that it was impossible for a fracking operation to contaminate drinking water. I was reminded of the way the computer geeks in college used to insist there was no such thing as a computer error. “I’m sure you’re right,” the rest of us would answer humbly. “Now can you help us recover the data?”

At least the computer geeks would then get busy fixing the bugs so that the next time the system crashed, it was from an entirely different cause. Gas company lobbyists have been stuck at denial, and it has only done them damage with the public. Admitting to a bad well casing seems far preferable to driving a now-widespread belief that methane is migrating up through rock fissures caused by fracking.

As for the other complaints—the 24-7 truck traffic, extra air pollution from operations, polluted wastewater, and occasional surface spills—the response from the gas industry and its friends has been that this is the price of progress. Industry is not pretty. Get over it. Who entitled you to a quiet life in the countryside?

But another alarm bell has been ringing, and it gets progressively louder. This one warns that drilling for natural gas, far from being the answer to climate change, may actually be making it worse. The problem is one of  “fugitive” emissions, which sounds vaguely criminal and exciting, but simply refers to the small percentage of natural gas that escapes into the atmosphere at drilling sites. Methane, the major ingredient of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is much shorter-acting than carbon dioxide but twenty-five times more powerful. If recent analyses prove correct, the amount of methane that escapes during the fracking process may be enough to make natural gas worse than coal as a driver of climate change. This is especially unhappy news given that natural gas integrates well with more variable energy sources like wind and solar, and environmentalists had been counting on it to help in the transition to a future powered mainly by renewable energy.

The trillion-dollar question is whether all these problems are inherent in natural gas drilling, or whether the gas companies could solve them if they put their minds to it. After all, wind energy companies have shown they can be responsive to environmental concerns and still grow as an industry. Environmentalists have turned from being the biggest critics of wind energy to its biggest advocates. There’s no rule saying gas drillers have to stonewall, or that the companies with the best operations have to support those drillers whose operations threaten communities and the climate.

Drilling companies don’t want methane to escape, obviously, because that is lost revenue for them. But neither do they seem to be making heroic efforts to monitor and prevent fugitive emissions. A few companies have been using innovative approaches to solve other problems, however. One has developed a method that uses propane as the fracking fluid, saving millions of gallons of fresh water for every well. The propane returns to the surface with the gas to be reused in a virtuous cycle.

Unfortunately, this method turns out to be more expensive than using water, which is often free if you grab it before anyone else realizes they might need it. So while you have to admire the elegance of the propane solution, you can’t really expect any self-respecting capitalist to adopt it just because it is better for society in general.

The same is true of an experimental approach that uses CO2 as the fracking medium. When water is the medium, most of what is injected remains underground permanently. CO2 seems to behave the same way, suggesting that the fracking wells might be able to sequester enough carbon underground to offset much of the CO2 that is emitted when the gas is burned. Coupled with carbon capture technology at plants burning natural gas for electricity, this technique would significantly lower the carbon footprint of natural gas. Whether it is enough to offset the problem of fugitive methane emissions is unclear.

But CO2 is already used in oil extraction, and drilling companies can’t get enough of it as it is, because carbon capture is expensive. Sure, it’s not as expensive as adapting our coastal cities to rising sea levels caused by climate change, but that’s a cost to society; carbon capture is a cost to industry. Any gas company or utility that adopts more expensive methods than its competitors, just because it’s better for society, won’t be around for long.

Capitalism can’t solve this problem alone, or any of the other pollution issues posed by natural gas extraction. Nor are individual states able to regulate practices effectively, because companies that face higher costs in a well-regulated state will move to states with more lax regulations in order to retain their competitive position.

The only effective answer is for the federal government to impose a set of best practices that apply to all members of the industry nationwide, so the good actors aren’t placed at a competitive disadvantage. The requirements would include extraction practices that minimize the risk of groundwater and surface water contamination, reduce air pollution, and prevent the escape of methane into the air. They would provide for monitoring and analysis, so regulators and industry would know where, when and how to take corrective measures. They would also cover the consumption end of the cycle, requiring carbon capture technology for all new fossil-fueled electric generation, and ensuring that the costs to society are borne by the industry.

This isn’t a radical idea, by the way. It is how we used to approach industry-wide problems, back before fossil fuel lobbyists reframed regulation as a dirty word that meant we were no longer a free people. The natural gas industry is now in a hugely dominant position over other fossil fuels. They can afford to implement rigorous best practices across the board and still retain a competitive edge. They should be lobbying to make them universal, not fighting efforts to regulate.

The alarms bells are growing louder. Will the gas industry rise to meet the emergency, or just keep trying to cut the wires?