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Moratoriums and bans on fracking: Comparative legislation

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to extract nonconventional petroleum products, such as tight gas and shale oil, from deep underground deposits. To release these hydrocarbons, the rock formations in which they are trapped must first be shattered into many small pieces. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, thus involves drilling 1000 to 5000 meters into the earth and injecting a high-pressure fluid mix of water, sand and various chemicals to fracture the rock and release the hard-to-reach hydrocarbons. This controversial technique has sparked resistance in many communities, regions, and countries where it is causing serious dangers to public health and the environment.

Countries, regions, cities and communities around the world have chosen to prohibit or place moratoriums on fracking through various legal and administrative mechanisms. These fracking bans are driven by a number of concerns surrounding the dangers fracking poses to the environment and public health. We would like to point out the following arguments:

  • Above ground and subterranean water sources, air, and soil in the vicinity of fracking operations are at serious risk of contamination.
  • There remains scientific uncertainty regarding of the magnitude of fracking’s impacts on public health and the environment.
  • Measures put in place by the hydrocarbon industry to prevent the impacts of fracking have not yet been proven effective. Moreover, a “general consensus” among actors in the hydrocarbon industry does not guarantee that fracking operations are safe for humans and the environment.
  • There is a serious risk of contamination of soil and water sources in rural and agricultural areas. Fracking impacts communities’ ways of life, and limits consumer confidence that food and agricultural products grown or produced in areas affected by fracking are safe to consume.
  • Fracking emits significant volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, exacerbating anthropogenic climate change. Among these gases produced by fracking are large volumes of methane, which traps roughly 30 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
  • There is a large and growing social opposition to fracking, driven by community organizations and citizen mobilization, demonstrating widespread popular opposition to the technique.
  • Indigenous communities like the Cherokee argue that defending their territories against fracking is essential to their continued survival.

Most of the moratoriums and bans on fracking surveyed in this report adopt the precautionary principle, either directly referencing the principle or indirectly alluding to it. For example, most fracking bans are based on the possibility of serious and irreversible harms caused by the extraction technique, or on the scientific uncertainty regarding the magnitude of fracking’s impacts. These measures invoke the precautionary principle, which states that in the event a technique could cause serious or irreversible dangers, or if there is a lack of scientific evidence that a technique is safe, decision makers should adopt proactive measures that protect the health of people and the environment above all.

However, various measures to ban or pass moratoriums on fracking did first require exhaustive scientific investigations by government authorities to better understand the risks fracking could cause to public health and the environment. Those studies confirmed the serious risks of hydraulic fracturing, but could not prove with certainty the short and long-term impacts of fracking, nor the efficacy of industry efforts to prevent and mitigate those dangers.

In a pair of case studies (in Northern Ireland and Wales) government authorities used the precautionary principle to establish a burden of proof, placing the onus on the hydrocarbon industry to clearly and scientifically demonstrate that the proposed fracking activities would not cause serious or irreversible harm to public health or the health of the environment. If the party pursuing hydraulic fracturing could not show evidence-based proof of the safety of fracking in a particular instance, authorities would maintain precautionary measures (such as prohibitions or moratoriums) in order to protect the health of people and the environment.

The measures adopted in these cases were formalized via legislation or through orders issued by the executive branch or other administrative bodies.

In two of the cases examined (New York and Maryland in the United States), prohibitions or moratoriums on fracking at the municipal level were key to securing political and legal support at larger, regional jurisdictions. Furthermore, social mobilization by grassroots organizations helped amplify and legitimize anti-fracking movements at the national or regional level.

In all cases, anti-fracking measures were passed only after mobilizing social resistance to fracking, which built awareness, generated larger movements, and unified voices against the technique. Civil society organizations have employed a diverse and creative array of methods to build support with political actors. Among them are citizens’ legislative initiatives, petitions, letters and meetings with policymakers, marches, strikes and protests, and other collective action. All have proven effective in generating political support to pass fracking bans. The power of social mobilization against fracking has been a deciding factor in many cases in which authorities have recognized that widespread public opposition to fracking is the principal reason to pass local fracking bans or moratoriums.