Document Type



Vermont Law Review




The advent of horizontal oil and gas drilling into relatively impermeable shale rock, and the companion technological breakthrough of high-pressure, multi-stage fracking that frees hydrocarbons along the substantial length of these horizontal wells, has fundamentally altered the oil and gas industry. The Energy Information Administration has gone so far as to predict that North America could become a net energy exporter as early as 2019, largely as a result of the explosive growth of this “unconventional” oil and gas development. Despite its promise, managing unconventional oil and gas development has proved challenging, and many of the communities that find themselves hosting this development have begun to push back in the face of serious public health and community impact concerns. Some communities have gone so far as to enact complete bans on “fracking,” the shorthand way that unconventional development is often described. Yet notwithstanding many legitimate concerns, the flexibility made possible by drilling wells horizontally two, three, and even five miles in length provides an opportunity to manage unconventional oil and gas development in a manner that greatly reduces health and environmental impacts.

Efforts to impose proactive management regimes that would effectively address these adverse impacts have thus far proved elusive. Effective management was especially challenging when the prices for oil and gas were high and developers rushed to cash in. But as the price of these commodities collapsed, and as development has waned, an opportunity has emerged to forge a new dialogue over a smarter approach to unconventional oil and gas development that might be deployed when the inevitable boom mentality returns. A smarter approach recognizes that the flexibility afforded by horizontal drilling can minimize the adverse impacts of development even while making development more efficient.

Many in the industry will likely resist a system that requires a far more substantial role for regulatory agencies, especially during the planning phase of development. But once the affected parties understand that oil and gas development can be carried out in a manner that is both efficient and compatible with community health and values, then the prospects for a productive relationship should brighten. Let the hard work of building that relationship begin.