Thursday, April 13, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — is a significant threat to our state’s scarce water supplies. Under current federal law, certain methods of fracking are exempt from a number of environmental protection laws, most importantly the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Due to these federal regulation exemptions, fracking is largely regulated at the state level, with states varying widely in their ability and commitment to govern this practice.
The potential threat that fracking poses to our water supplies is grounded in reality. The longstanding drought that occurred throughout much of the West and Southwest saw fracking wastewater in California rerouted to farmlands for the purposes of livestock drinking water and the irrigation of crops in 2014. According to a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, “[i]nvestigative reports in 2015 revealed that Chevron Corporation piped 21 million gallons of recycled oil and gas wastewater per day to farmers for crop irrigation. Tests showed the presence of several volatile organic compounds, including acetone, which is linked, in lab studies, to kidney, liver and nerve damage.”
The investigative report is an eye-opening look into the fracking practice, but in fact, further investigations and testing revealed that “more than one-third of the 173 chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process are classified as trade secrets and their identities are therefore unknown to the public. Of the remainder, 10 are classified as either carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic in humans, 22 are classified by the state of California as toxic air contaminants, and 14 had no ecotoxicity or mammalian toxicity data available.”
While this heavily veiled practice occurred outside of Nevada, over a third of our country’s vegetables and two-thirds of our country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California — and according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, “In 2015, California’s leading agricultural export products by value were almonds ($5.14 billion), dairy products ($1.63 billion), walnuts ($1.49 billion), wine ($1.48 billion), and pistachios ($848 million).” That’s something to remember the next time you eat an “organic” apple, choose the “healthy” walnut salad for lunch or unwind at the end of the day with a glass of Napa Valley wine.
Nevada must learn from the issues uncovered in California. Nevada is the most arid state in the nation, with a codified public policy for protecting water resources above all others. Nevada is frequently susceptible to droughts, making our water supplies a very precious resource. An Environmental Protection Agency study, published in 2016, and over a dozen other independent studies in Texas, found evidence of groundwater contamination as a result of fracking practices. Nevada has limited groundwater basins, with the vast majority are already overappropriated. Once a groundwater basin is contaminated, it is nearly impossible to remediate. A 2017 study of North Dakota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Colorado found more than 6,600 spills at fracking sites in a 10-year period. That is an average of two spills a day for 10 years. These careless practices would create great risk of contamination to groundwater and surface waters throughout Nevada.
The truth of the matter is Nevada has virtually no natural gas deposits and very little oil deposits — only a small percentage of which are extracted through fracking methods. 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 of Elko). Such production levels are insignificant to oil markets, do not lower the prices for oil or gas and do not move us any closer to energy independence.
There are currently four other oil wells in Nevada permitted for fracking, none of which are active. There are no jobs on the line with the passage of AB159 to ban fracking in the state, as the existing permits are exempted.
As a legislator, it my job to promote good public policy and weigh the costs and benefits of each measure. Based upon the information available to me, banning fracking, and passing AB159, is an easy call for Nevada. The benefits of hydraulic fracturing are virtually nonexistent for Nevada, but the potential damages are irreparable.
Assemblyman Justin Watkins, D-Las Vegas, was elected in 2016 to the Assembly’s 35th District. He serves on the following committees: Corrections, Parole, and Probation; Judiciary; Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Mining; and Transportation.