Is the tide turning in favor of fracking?

Last week, I noted that a number of towns in Colorado have adopted resolutions and language supporting the oil and gas industry. Earlier this year, Texas and Oklahoma passed laws prohibiting municipalities from banning hydraulic fracturing. This past Tuesday, a federal judge in Wyoming put the brakes on the Obama administration’s rules for fracking on federal lands.

All of which raises an interesting question: Are fractivists beginning to lose the war? The Washington Times seems to think they might be.

“In a development that has caught both sides by surprise, the legal and political momentum these days appears to be running against the anti-fracking cause,” the paper reported. “In states where the revolutionary oil- and gas-drilling technique actually is being employed in a significant way, the movement is losing ground.”

I’m not sure the industry can declare victory just yet, but there’s no denying that events of the past few months have started to swing in fracking’s direction:
  • A report from the Environmental Protection Agency concluded the process has no widespread impact on water.
  • Denton had to repeal its fracking ban in the wake of a new Texas law that effectively rendered the municipal ordinance unenforceable.
  • Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper detoured an activist-driven effort to put anti-drilling initiatives on the November ballot, and state courts have, for the most part, struck down bans.
  • Voters in Youngstown, Ohio, rejected a proposed fracking ban for the fourth time last November, defeating it by 15.7 percentage points – the largest losing margin yet.
  • Voters in Santa Barbara, Calif., killed a ban by 30 points, 63 percent to 37 percent, and Gov. Jerry Brown – hardly a poster child for conservative causes – has said that a ban “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Of course, environmentalists will counter that statewide bans are in place in Maryland, Vermont, and New York, and make the case that two California counties did, in fact, approve prohibitions last November.

But they won't tell you that New York’s decision was a product of truly bad science, and that the bans in Vermont and Maryland were of little significance because neither state produces energy from fracking. As for the California counties that passed bans, there’s no record of any drilling activity in either.

In other words, where anti-oil and gas initiatives have succeeded, they have been largely symbolic, relatively meaningless, and exercises in activist public relations rather than substantive policy-making.

As I said above, none of this should have the energy industry taking a victory lap. Activists are nothing if not resilient, and they have vowed to keep coming back in some communities where the bans keep failing. But I do know this:

If hydraulic fracturing were a danger to human health and environment, statehouses and courthouses – and even the White House – would be on a mission to choke it with regulations. Yet no legislation has passed. Courts are tossing the bans. And EPA says the process, done right, doesn’t taint water.

While that may not qualify as a triumph, it’s enough to give us hope that rhetoric is giving way to responsibility in the drilling debate.
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