Eco Policy Blog: Frack Off

President Obama, in the State of the Union address, promised to open federal lands to “fracking” to create 600,000 jobs. Not only will fracking solve unemployment, but there is enough gas to fuel our country for 100 years. What does this new support mean for land within state jurisdiction?

Fracking is a nickname for hydraulic fracturing – a technique to remove natural gas from rock by injecting high-pressured liquid and chemicals into the rock to break it up. The environmental concerns with the practice revolve around clean drinking water, air pollution and, now, earthquakes. The EPA is studying whether fracking has contaminated groundwater. Earthjustice has a map of high-profile “fraccidents” in the U.S. you can see here.

In pursuance of federalism, states have been fracking for several years on state and private land. But the President’s announcement comes in the midst of heated debate within state jurisdictions who are considering fracking bans, how to regulate and whether wastes should cross state lines. Obama’s new support of the industry could influence what state lawmakers do.

There are already examples of this happening. As New York considers lifting a three year fracking ban, some lawmakers perceive Obama’s support as a directive to go ahead on state land that is currently off-limits. On the other hand, the President’s remarks could be worrying enough to get a reaction where there was none before. Students in Mount Pleasant, Michigan have asked the city council to ban fracking as a result of the speech. Rockingham County, VA is studying the impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, after a company has applied for a well permit.

Obama’s new support of fracking could instill confidence in localities like Rockingham who are considering permitting. And clarified federal regulations, to be announced in a few weeks, may help answer questions and concerns lingering at the state level, paving the way for more fracking on state land.

Caitlin Kilpatrick
Master of Public Policy Candidate, Class of 2013
Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy

February 6th, 2012

Eco Policy Blog: New policy to clean up coal’s trash

This is a containment facility for coal ash – a by-product created when coal is burned for electricity. Maybe you’ve never considered the stuff. I hadn’t until it started appearing in the news recently. Like most environmental problems in the US, coal ash didn’t become a national issue until this high-profile accident in Tennessee in 2008 demonstrated the potential destruction of this material. The risk isn’t only in Tennessee. Virginia is a large coal producer – the 13th producer in weight in the states in 2009.

In response to the attention brought on by the accident in Tennessee, Congress is racing the EPA to produce a policy to regulate the disposal of coal ash. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act” (H.R. 2273) that would give each state the authority to implement a permitting plan for disposal of coal ash as non-hazardous waste. The bill is an attempt to preempt much stricter proposed EPA regulations that would classify coal ash as a type of hazardous waste.

I was surprised to read that the disposal of the dangerous coal by-product is currently unregulated. Companies are no longer allowed to release ash into the atmosphere, but how they contain or dispose of it hasn’t been touched by the national government. Unregulated, the ash is usually stored in landfills, wet or dry embankments (pits), or recycled into building materials. The accident in 2008 happened when a wet embankment gave way and billions of gallons of wet ash spilled into the river and people’s yards, destroying homes. The House bill requires coal landfills and ponds to be lined and groundwater monitored in the same manner as solid municipal waste (regular household garbage), requiring all landfills and impoundments to designed to hold a maximum weight of the material. The EPA proposal classifies coal ash as a hazardous waste. This differs from the House bill because the program is administered by the EPA, allows lined landfills but phases out wet and surface impoundments within 5 years, and requires 30 years after-care on closed sites.

In Virginia, eight of our 11 members of the House of Representatives voted in support of H.R. 2273. Three opposed it. To become law, the bill still needs to pass the Senate, comprised mostly of Democrats, and receive a signature from President Obama. Although support seems unlikely from Democrats who generally support stricter environmental regulations, there has already been bipartisan sponsorship of the identical Senate bill just introduced. Similarly, President Obama released this statement in opposition, but did not specifically threaten a veto.

Why is this so important? According to the energy industry, we will pay higher energy bills due to the harsher regulations for hazardous waste. They also warn that the ash recycling business would be hit, raising prices for things like roads, bricks, bowling balls that recycle coal ash. But environmental groups point to the heavy metals and carcinogens in the material, and the devastation in Tennessee. The EPA estimates there are 600 dams constructed similarly to the one that collapsed – 50 of them “high-hazard” for collapse. The debris has potential to poison drinking water, aquatic environments or dry up portions of river.

For broader national policy, we will have to see if the exposed dangers of coal ash will inform decision making in favor of renewable energy.

Caitlin Kilpatrick
Master of Public Policy Candidate, Class of 2013
Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy

October 26th, 2011

Eco Policy Blog with Caitlin Kilpatrick: Introduction

I am excited to be assigned to the Committee on Sustainability for my graduate assistantship. There is a phenomenal body of student research ongoing for sustainability at William and Mary. Sometimes unfortunately, the practical side of promoting sustainability involves politics. For example, natural resources are commonly owned by the government, and we need laws to deal with them. Because of this necessity, I thought it would be interesting to add a thread focused on sustainability and environmental issues before Congress and the Virginia legislature to the Sustainability blog.

I know many of you are educated and/or involved in politics. Congressman Whittman held a forum with the campus community last Wednesday to address our questions and concerns. Kudos to those of you who participated! The policy posts seek to bring attention and background to some of the major issues our policy-makers are facing regarding sustainability.

Thanks for reading!
Caitlin Kilpatrick

Master of Public Policy Candidate, Class of 2013
Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy

October 26th, 2011


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