Fracking control debated
Times Leader | Jonathan Riskind
May 30, 2011
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WASHINGTON – When federal Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson touched on “fracking” during a House hearing May 24 on Capitol Hill, proponents and detractors of the natural gas drilling method took immediate notice.
And, naturally, both sides in the debate over hydraulic fracturing – the process for extracting natural gas from rock formations deep underground by injecting water, sand and chemicals – came away with very different takes on Jackson’s comments.
And, naturally, both sides in the increasingly contentious argument over whether the federal government should regulate the hydraulic fracturing industry rather than leaving state agencies in charge took pains to spin the comments as showing that the EPA head did or did not favor new federal authority.
As fracking wells proliferate in Northeast Pennsylvania – and elsewhere around the country – proponents say it’s a boom that will help fuel a clean energy supply of natural gas and create a slew of good-paying jobs for years to come.
But opponents charge that fracking carries the risk of contaminating groundwater supplies and that federal oversight is needed to guard against too lax state regulation of the Marcellus Shale that includes a large swath of Pennsylvania and similar natural gas-laden formations elsewhere in the country.
Focus on safety
The debate is heating up in Washington because the EPA is launching a study – the design of which is still being finalized – of whether fracking endangers groundwater supplies and has other harmful environmental impacts. The EPA says that initial results will be made public by the end of 2012, with a final report “following further research” released in 2014.
The Department of Energy, meanwhile, in early May named experts to a panel to make recommendations on how to “improve the safety and environmental performance” of the fracking industry.
“America’s vast natural gas resources can generate many new jobs and provide significant environmental benefits, but we need to ensure we harness these resources safely,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in a release announcing the panel’s makeup.
Included on the panel are environmentalists and industry experts, including Kathleen McGinty, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Some members of Congress, meanwhile, want to pass legislation called the FRAC Act – Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals – that takes away a the Bush administration-era law exempting fracking from federal Safe Drinking Water Act regulations and requiring drillers to disclose the chemicals used as part of the fracking process.
The lead authors of that legislation in the Senate and House are Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and Diana DeGette, D-Col.
Casey: Regulation needed
Casey says that federal regulation is warranted.
“Natural gas drilling offers Pennsylvania tremendous economic opportunities if we do it right,” Casey said in a statement when his legislation was introduced earlier this year. “Pennsylvanians have a right to know the chemicals used in fracking that could make their way into drinking water and other water sources.”
During the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on May 24, a session mainly devoted to the topic of high gasoline prices at the pump, EPA head Jackson said that “increasing American’s natural gas production is a good thing” because it produces a cleaner type of energy than other fossil fuels.
When she was asked about whether fracking is a danger to groundwater supplies, Jackson said that “there’s evidence that it certainly can affect them,” but she added that there is not evidence that it actually has to date.
“I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing,” she said.
Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, focused in her blog on the part of Jackson’s testimony in which she stressed that the EPA will step in if a fracking operator’s drilling does jeopardize clean water supplies and a state regulatory body doesn’t act.
Mall headlined her blog item: “Lisa Jackson commits to protecting clean drinking water from fracking risks.”
But Mark Green stressed in his blog on the Washington-based American Petroleum Institute’s Energy Tomorrow web site that Jackson acknowledged: “ ‘Fracking’ hasn’t affected water.”
Jackson has said similar things before, Green wrote, “but in the context of the current public debate over ‘fracking,’ it’s huge.”
Asked about the pending study and its stance on federal regulation of fracking, the EPA said in a statement that, “Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future and the process known as hydraulic fracturing is one way of accessing that vital resource.”
But, “to help ensure that energy production does not come at the expense of public health, EPA scientists are undertaking a study of this practice to better understand any potential impacts it may have on drinking water resources,” the EPA statement added.
And even as the study unfolds, the EPA said it “will not hesitate to take any steps under the law to protect Americans whose health may be at risk, and we remain committed to working with states, who are on the front lines of permitting and regulating natural gas production activities.”
An EPA spokeswoman said one of those steps occurred in Pennsylvania in mid-May, when the EPA said in a release that it had “directed six natural gas drillers to disclose how and where the companies dispose of or recycle drilling process water in the region.”
The EPA continues to work with the state DEP to “ensure that natural gas production takes place safely and responsibly,” the agency said.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, said state regulators don’t need any more help from the federal government.
Marino said he is opposed to federal regulation of the fracking being done in the Marcellus Shale – noting there are wells operating a mile or so from his property and he has seen no evidence of any environmental harm.
“I just think the state is doing a fantastic job” of regulating fracking in Northeast Pennsylvania, Marino said. “There is no reason for the federal government to get involved in this.”
But Gwen Lechelt, of the environmental advocacy group Earthworks, whose Oil and Gas Accountability Project works on Marcellus Shale issues, says state regulations are not forcing companies to disclose enough about what chemicals go into fracturing fluid, and that companies aren’t disclosing enough of that information voluntarily, either.
Casey’s proposed legislation would set a “federal floor” of what must be disclosed about fracking operations in Pennsylvania and 33 other states, Lechelt said.
Meanwhile, the EPA’s pending study of fracking is key, because, “We don’t have enough information, which is why this fracking study is so important about what happens underground during a fracturing operation,” Lechelt said.
Nadia Steinzor, Earthworks’ Marcellus regional organizer, said that while there is some disclosure of what chemicals go into fracturing fluid, more details often are needed about what concentrations and volumes are used at each well site.
Casey’s legislation would “bring underground injections of toxic chemicals back under federal regulation and authority,” said Steinzor. “That’s a really critical piece. This would force a uniform (national) standard if done right.”
The companies carrying out fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale, too, are “supportive of the concept of the EPA study,” said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry organization whose members include nearly 190 companies.
Windle said the industry already is taking steps to voluntarily disclose what chemicals are used in fracking fluid.
Information about more than 1,000 wells around the country has thus far been put on a web site -- http://fracfocus.org/node/311 -- launched by state regulators, the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry, according to the web site.
Forty-two companies were participating as of last week, and more are adding their wells as time goes on, according to the web site, started about two months ago as a joint venture of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
The industry is “confident that an EPA study grounded in the facts and science and peer-reviewed” will reach the conclusion that “hydraulic fracturing is no danger to groundwater,” Windle said. “We remain very hopeful and optimistic about the idea of giving this a full and thorough evaluation.”