Colorado, N.Y. reps want regulation of ‘fracking’
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – The push to put a widely used oil and gas drilling process under federal oversight could gain ground with a new administration in place and concerns about the development of huge gas fields in the East.
Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Maurice Hinchey of New York plan to reintroduce a bill that would repeal a ban on regulating the process, called hydraulic fracturing, under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The exemption was part of the 2005 energy bill and followed an Environmental Protection Agency report that found there was little or no threat to underground drinking water from the process.
Critics blame the process, popularly known as “fracking,” for health and environmental problems in oil and gas fields in the Rockies and elsewhere. The industry insists fracking is clean and crucial to energy development.
The bill, expected to be introduced next week, also would require companies to disclose what’s in fracking fluids. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., is a co-sponsor.
Fracking involves injecting liquids, sand and chemicals underground to force open channels in tight sand and rock formations so that oil and gas will flow. The provision exempting it from federal oversight is called the “Halliburton loophole” by foes.
Halliburton, an oil services company, pioneered hydraulic fracturing. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who once ran Halliburton, tightly guided the George W. Bush administration’s energy policy.
The Obama administration has bolstered environmentalists’ hopes that the oversight ban will end. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said during a May 21 tour of a gas field in southwest Wyoming that the government must be sure it’s doing all it can to ensure that fracking is safe.
California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, selected to head the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has long backed tougher oversight of fracking.
The industry reads the same signals. Trade groups representing independent oil and gas producers formed a coalition, Energy in Depth, to respond to calls for more regulation. They’ve lined up support from lawmakers in energy-producing states. Legislators in Wyoming, a major gas producer, passed a resolution this year asking Congress to maintain the exemption for fracking.
“We looked at the landscape and saw a lot of potential changes on the horizon,” Energy in Depth spokesman Chris Tucker said.
Nine out of 10 wells drilled nationwide are fracked, Tucker said. The industry believes fracking is crucial to producing gas from the tight sands of the Rockies as well as gas shale reserves such as the Marcellus Shale that underlies much of New York state, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Studies commissioned by the coalition said that proposed changes in regulations, including the fracking exemption, could force the closure of more than half of oil wells and one-third of gas wells. They would cost the federal government $4 billion in revenue and the states a total of $785 million, the studies say.
The industry says fracking occurs far below groundwater tapped for drinking. Cement casings around bore holes prevent exposure, companies say.
“I think it’s a worthwhile thing to note that in 60 years of use, there are no studies tying hydraulic fracturing to contamination,” Tucker said.
Gwen Lachelt of the Colorado-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which works with communities across the country, said there are no documented cases of contamination because nobody’s investigating.
“The practice is completely exempt from any regulation,” Lachelt said.
People living near gas wells in parts of the Rockies that experienced record gas drilling in recent years have complained about bad-tasting well water, well blowouts when fracking is going on and health problems they believe are caused by methane or chemicals from gas production.
In some cases, companies have bought out or compensated the affected landowners. In others, they say no connection was found to their operations.
An emergency room nurse in Durango in southwest Colorado who became gravely ill last year after treating a gas-field worker drenched in fluids said she and had trouble getting a breakdown of the fluid’s ingredients.
At least five Colorado cities and counties have passed resolutions endorsing more regulation.
“I don’t have any problems with the fracking process per se, it’s the chemicals they use in the process,” said Wally White, a commissioner in La Plata County, a big gas-producing area.
Companies say they use mostly sand and water in fracking, but also acknowledge using chemicals and lubricants to help coax the oil and gas out. They guard their fracking recipes as proprietary information.
The industry says the chemicals are highly diluted.
DeGette said during a conference call Thursday that chemicals known to have been used in fracking include diesel fuel, industrial solvents and benzene, known to cause cancer.
The 2004 EPA report on the effects on groundwater from fracking coal-bed methane wells was a truncated version of what it was supposed to be, Lachelt said.
“Phase two of the study would have monitored water quality in the proximity of fracking operations, but we never got that far,” Lachelt said.
Wes Wilson, a veteran engineer in the Denver EPA office, disputed the report’s findings. He went public in 2004 alleging the study was incomplete and its methodology inconsistent with other EPA studies.
“There’s never been a rigorous scientific study on whether fracking contaminates aquifers,” said Geoffrey Thyne of the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, based at the University of Wyoming.
Thyne said he has read many technical papers on fracking as part of a study he did as an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines. The 2004 EPA report didn’t settle the issue for Thyne, who stressed he wasn’t speaking for the college.
Thyne said he would prefer comprehensive studies and monitoring over federal regulation of fracking.
“But if the industry position stays the same, ‘No, we have to keep the exemption,’ then I would have to support putting them back” under federal regulation, Thyne said.
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