Journalism in the Public Interest


From Gung-Ho to Uh-Oh: Charting the Government’s Moves on Fracking

Feb. 27: This timeline has been corrected.

Fracking has only recently become a household word, but government involvement with the drilling technique goes back decades. President Obama has championed the potential of natural gas drilling combined with more regulation. While there has been mounting evidence of water contamination, few regulations have been implemented. The graphic below traces officials' moves -- and levels of caution -- over time.

Gung-ho Uh-oh colorcode
Before 2000 2000-2008 2009 2010 2011

1969 The government detonates a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb deep underground in an effort to get at natural gas deposits in Colorado. The gas unlocked by "Project Rulison" is deemed too radioactive to use.

June 2004 An EPA report concludes that fracking is safe for drinking water. The report, which didn't include a scientific study, has since been criticized as politically motivated.

June Congress introduces the FRAC Act, a law that would allow the EPA to regulate fracking and require companies to disclose the chemicals they pump into the ground. The bill never came to a vote.

February The House Committee on Energy and Commerce launches an investigation into the potential environmental and health impacts of fracking.

March The FRAC Act mandating more oversight is reintroduced into the House and Senate. It is still in committee.

1976 In response to energy shortages, the DOE launches the Eastern Gas Shales Project, a joint research project between state, federal, and private industrial organizations to research "unconventional" natural gas resources.

August 2005 Congress passes a law prohibiting the EPA from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In most other cases the law dictates what chemicals can be injected underground.

August In response to complaints of drinking water contamination, the EPA begins investigating wells in drilling areas of Pavillion, Wyoming. Initial testing finds at least three water wells that contain a chemical used for fracking.

March The EPA launches a study looking at the impacts of fracking on drinking water nationwide. The final report is due out in 2014.

April Congressional Democrats release a report stating that over the past few years gas drillers have injected millions of gallons of fluids containing potentially toxic chemicals into the ground.

1986 As part of an early federal effort to investigate new methods of extracting natural gas, the Department of Energy sponsors the drilling of a 2,000-foot horizontal well in the Devonian shales of Wayne County, WV.

August 2005 The Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Resources Research Program is established to develop technologies to increase national oil and gas production and reduce dependency on imports.

October The Obama administration rescinds the 2007 memo that loosened restrictions on air pollution caused by drilling.

December The Department of the Interior holds a forum to discuss the impact of current drilling practices and to consider a policy requiring companies to disclose the chemicals they use for fracking. President Obama has spoken in support of such a policy, but no official rules have been implemented.

May A federal panel releases a report concluding that current fracking regulations may not be enough to protect the environment and public health. That same month, Congress introduces the BREATHE act, which would give the EPA power to regulate air pollution from fracking. It has yet to pass.

1994 The Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation uses the Safe Water Drinking Act to challenge the EPA's decision not to regulate fracking in Alabama. The EPA maintains that it is under no such legal requirement. Two years later, the case reaches a federal appeals court which rules against the EPA, saying the agency is in fact required to regulate fracking (at least in Alabama). The decision prompts an effort to exempt fracking from regulation, and in 2005, an exemption is passed by Congress.

January 2007 A Bush administration memo effectively loosens the limits on air pollution from many natural gas wells.

December In a controversial decision, the Bureau of Land Management approves gas drilling within a three mile buffer zone of a radioactive Colorado site, the home of the 1960's nuclear test Project Rulison.

July 2011 The EPA proposes a set of regulations to reduce harmful air pollution from oil and natural gas production, specifically targeting compounds released by fracking. The regulations have not yet been adopted.

October 2008 The Department of Energy funds AltaRock, a project to extract renewable energy from hot bedrock by fracking more than two miles deep. The test, which a year later the Obama administration makes its first major geothermal venture, is cancelled quickly due to, among other things, concerns about causing an earthquake.

October The EPA announces a plan to issue new national rules for fracking wastewater. The process is still in its early stages, and the EPA is currently simply soliciting input.

November In response to a petition by environmental groups, the EPA agrees to develop rules requiring companies to test and submit data on the chemicals they use for fracking. Again the rules are not yet set.

December An EPA draft report concludes that contaminants in Pavillion, Wyoming most likely seeped up from gas wells, scientifically linking water contamination to fracking for the first time.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, The Sierra Club

Correction: We originally placed the AltaRock entry in 2009. We've moved it to 2008 because that's when the DOE initially funded the project. We also made a few clarifications: Readers have pointed out that the name used to refer to the project, AltaRock, is also the name of the company running it. While there was much concern about the project causing an earthquake, the Department of Energy says drilling difficulties forced a project shutdown first.