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Fracking and the environment: Cooling tensions out West

The emergence of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as a major source of domestic oil and gas has often put energy companies and environmentalists at bitter odds. But two developments out West show that doesn’t always have to be the case.

The boom in fracking, which involves drilling into shale formations and using high-pressure water and chemicals to force out fuel, has raised the hope of greater energy security for the United States. But it has also prompted fears that the process releases too much methane into the air while allowing dangerous chemicals to seep into water. In Colorado, as the proliferation of wells and smog prompted voters in Boulder, Fort Collins, and two other communities to approve restrictions on fracking, Governor John Hickenlooper brought energy companies and environmentalists together before passions ran completely amok.

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Generally a supporter of fracking, Hickenlooper crafted the nation’s first statewide standards for methane emissions in energy exploration. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases associated with climate change, and Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment estimates that the new rules would also result in major reductions of volatile organic compounds that contribute to asthma. The breakthrough was blessed by the state’s biggest oil and gas firms, which said it at least offers regulatory certainty — but also by the Environmental Defense Fund, which hailed it as a national model.

In Wyoming, meanwhile, the state last month announced some of the nation’s toughest water testing regulations, requiring drillers to test groundwater within a half-mile of their operations, before and after. The state has been hospitable to fracking, but its GOP governor insists that the state needs both energy production and environmental protection. Fracking doesn’t always have to necessitate fractious debate.

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