Cataloguing Impacts Of The Shale Boom: A Foundation For Local Governance

February 17, 2015

by guest author Christopher Halfnight, F&ES ‘15

The shale boom has stirred deep controversy across the United States.  With vast domestic deposits of natural gas and tight oil now both geologically and economically accessible, many stakeholders, from developers to landowners, are seeking to gain.  But others are sounding alarms over contaminated wells, methane flares, and toxic spills.  Federal and state authorities, with slow regulatory responses and minimal stake in local impacts, are often leaving local governments to navigate this controversy – and the many impacts of “fracking” – with constrained budgets and limited capacity.
 
With support from the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School, Yale Climate & Energy Institute, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a research team at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School is working to fill this governance gap through a project titled Addressing the Local Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing.  The team is building a suite of tools to empower local government decision-making on a range of shale-related local governance challenges.  The project’s stakeholder workshops and research to date have helped fashion the first significant resource in that toolkit: a comprehensive impacts framework cataloguing the potential local effects from shale oil and gas development.  The research team developed this framework of fracking impacts to help orient communities to potential risks and benefits of shale development.  The framework represents a major new resource to provide both a significant knowledge base for local government decision-making and a substantive legal foundation for regulatory and non-regulatory actions.
 
In the impacts framework, the research team has synthesized nearly 40 local impacts of unconventional oil and gas development across the environmental, socio-economic, and public health spectrum.  The team started with a spreadsheet of municipal fracking bans generously shared by Food & Water Watch, then scoured fracking-related local government resolutions across the country to assess the issues dominating communities’ concerns.  Building on this community-level survey, the team convened two stakeholder workshops and conducted significant research to identify and categorize key potential impacts.  Ranging from habitat fragmentation to visual blight and rising tax revenues to increased employment, the framework addresses both positive and negative impacts communities may face throughout the fracking development lifecycle.  The catalogue of impacts is inclusive but neither exhaustive nor predictive; it captures the range of challenges a community may face from a shale play depending on local context, including issues of concern to the scientific community, environmental advocates, industry, and local community members. Importantly, some of the identified impacts are quite likely to occur, while others are equally unlikely. The researchers are not making judgments about the probability or severity of these impacts. We are simply identifying issues that may arise in any given community in order to help prepare local decision-makers. 
 
For each impact in the framework, the research team has identified potential causes and resources linked to those causes that explain, document, contextualize, or substantiate the impact.  Wherever possible, the team has sought to provide links to authoritative, peer-reviewed journal articles with objective perspective on an impact and its cause.  Where peer-reviewed resources were not available, the framework provides either non-peer reviewed reports and studies or news reports with useful coverage of the impact.  With more than 150 resources and links that document and contextualize the potential local impacts, the framework represents a significant effort towards equipping local governments with a foundation to manage shale development. 
 
The impacts framework makes clear that the local effects of the shale boom are many and varied.  Most of the impacts the research team has noted span the entire geography of shale development – from Texas to Pennsylvania to North Dakota – though individual community experiences vary with unique environmental, economic, and other characteristics.  Some potential impacts, such as groundwater pollution from stray gas or fracking chemicals, are subject to scientific study and documented in peer-reviewed literature.  Other impacts, such as an increase in demand for local government services and a reduction in local government workforce retention, are not as well documented but still very real worries for local communities. 
 
The Yale/Pace shale development impacts framework represents a substantial step in the team’s efforts to empower local government decision-making.  This significant new resource will help local government leaders identify potential risks and economic benefits of fracking specific to their communities.  The framework will also provide the underpinnings for local action based on local priorities, while fostering productive engagement with industry and state regulators.
 
A static version of this impact list is available online now. In the coming weeks and months the Yale/Pace team will work to update this list with a robust menu of regulatory and non-regulatory governance options that local authorities might consider if any of these impacts raise concerns within their jurisdiction. The team is likewise developing more narrative explanations of the cause of each impact, which will allow local governments to tie their responses more effectively to the underlying problems. Finally, the team will soon release an updated version of this impact list in a dynamic, searchable, online interface.
 
Building on this initial resource, the team is engaging stakeholders from government, industry, and communities across the country to identify strategic options and alternatives for local governments to address each of the many potential impacts of unconventional oil and gas development.  The research team is creating a series of case studies illustrating local government capacity and identifying leading practices – from comprehensive plan amendments to road use agreements to noise restrictions – that will provide guidance to communities facing shale development.  Eventually, the team hopes to bundle these resources in a comprehensive training program for municipal leaders.  
 
Despite the recent turbulence in international oil markets, local governments across the country are struggling to keep pace with the shale boom.  Some communities are enacting bans that may be preempted by state governments, while others are welcoming development with inadequate safeguards.  The Yale/Pace research team is striving to find ground between the two, building tools for sound, balanced, and effective local law and policy that will empower the communities where many of the impacts of shale development are felt.