A proposal to ban fracking in Nevada has been panned as politically driven and shortsighted economically, but the bill’s sponsor says it will protect residents’ health and cap risks to sparse groundwater supplies.
Assembly Bill 159, authored by Assemblyman Justin Watkins, D-Las Vegas, would ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and gas exploration and development. The technique pumps large amounts of pressurized fluids into wellbores, creating fractures in rock formations that allow oil and gas to be extracted.
Watkins didn’t respond to Watchdog.org’s request for an interview, but he explained his support for a fracking ban in a recent column in the Las Vegas Sun. He pointed to a federal Environmental Protection Agency study released in 2016, as well as some studies done in Texas, that found evidence of groundwater contamination due to fracking.
The American Petroleum Institute has disputed such conclusions in the past and has pointed to other research showing no correlations between groundwater contamination and fracking.
Calling Nevada the most arid state in the nation, Watkins cited research saying that recycled fracking wastewater containing volatile organic compounds has been used to irrigate crops in California, generating health concerns.
“Nevada must learn from the issues uncovered in California,” he said in the April opinion piece.
Banning fracking would pose little in the way of economic impacts in Nevada, according to the assemblyman. That’s because only a small percentage of the state’s oil and gas deposits have been developed using fracking technology, he said.
“In fact, less than 20,000 barrels of oil have ever been extracted by way of fracking in the history of Nevada (and all from one well outside Elko),” Watkins said.
Industry representatives, however, have been critical of AB 159 as it has advanced in the legislature. The bill has passed the Assembly and is now in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
“Nevada is a new frontier in hydraulic fracturing,” Paul Enos, a lobbyist for the Nevada Petroleum and Geothermal Society, told Watchdog.org.
Enos conceded that fracking is not in widespread use in Nevada, with only about five wells currently employing the technology. But there are proven oil reserves in the eastern part of that state that can only be extracted using fracking, he said.
“A lot of the folks that have leases would abandon them” if the state were to ban fracking, Enos said. That, in turn, could disrupt the $3 million generated through oil lease fees that go to Nevada schools, he said
The state has also already taken steps to reduce health and safety risks from fracking, according to Enos. Nevada enacted some of the most stringent fracking regulations in the nation in 2014, he said, including baseline monitoring of groundwater before any drilling is done, predisclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluids and added wellhead construction requirements.
“Our hope is that our legislators, especially in the Nevada State Senate, see the issues and understand that the regulations in place are very balanced,” Enos said.
Another opponent who testified before the Nevada legislature is Tim Shestek, the senior director of state affairs for the American Chemical Council. Chemical companies in the United States have been enjoying a wave of prosperity largely thanks to stable, low-cost supplies of natural gas to power factories and serve as raw materials in chemical manufacturing, Shestek told lawmakers.
“While natural gas and oil production in Nevada may be limited today, imposing a blanket prohibition on hydraulic fracturing could unnecessarily stifle future economic growth opportunities,” he said.
Conservation groups, however, have supported AB 159 as a way to protect the state’s limited groundwater. Opponents have also pointed to seismic activities, primarily in Oklahoma, that have been associated with fracking activities, particularly when water from fracking operations is injected back into the ground.
But Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Las Vegas, dismisses many of those arguments as exaggerated.
“There’s always a huge amount of fear mongering in order to make a case that can’t be made,” Edwards told Watchdog.org.
It doesn’t make sense to simply cut out a new industry in the state that could eventually generate additional revenues for government services such as education, he said.
Like Enos, Edwards predicted that oil companies would pull out of the state if it decided to ban fracking. But he added that there is a good chance that Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
“People need to spend more time coming up with policies that are well thought out,” the assemblyman said, rather than simply pushing a policy that’s purely partisan.
It’s possible for Nevada to safely tap into its natural resources to help pay for education and other services, according to Edwards.
“But if you set a bad trend toward business, then businesses are not going to come here,” he said.