Rep. DeGette pursues hearing, study on ‘fracking’
July 10, 2009
DENVER – U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is moving ahead with her bill to put a widely used oil and gas drilling process under federal oversight while also seeking a study to gather more data on the practice.
The Colorado Democrat is sponsoring a bill that would repeal a ban on regulating hydraulic fracturing under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The 2005 energy bill exempted the process, also called “fracking,” from federal oversight.
The bill, also sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., is being vigorously opposed by industry groups, which say the technology is used to drill the majority of the country’s oil and gas wells and is crucial to energy development. The industry says claims that fracking threatens groundwater are unsubstantiated.
The process injects liquids, sand and chemicals underground to force open channels in tight sand and rock formations so that oil and gas will flow.
The industry says 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, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter entered the debate Thursday when he said in a speech at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference that he has asked DeGette to consider a comprehensive study “instead of jumping directly to a new and potentially intrusive regulatory program.”
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Kristofer Eisenla, DeGette’s spokesman, said the congresswoman has talked to Ritter as well as industry representatives. She is talking to the Environmental Protection Agency about studying fracking.
That doesn’t mean DeGette isn’t pursuing the legislation, Eisenla said.
“She’s not backing off,” Eisenla said, “but she does believe more data is necessary.”
DeGette is trying to schedule a hearing on her bill, he added.
Gwen Lachelt of the Colorado-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which works with communities across the country, said she would welcome a comprehensive study. Lachelt, who supports federal oversight of fracking and required disclosure of the chemicals companies use, said the Bush administration quashed a plan for federal monitoring of groundwater near drilling operations.
“There’s never been a study on the effects of fracking,” Lachelt said.
A 2004 review that is cited by the industry as proof that the process is safe amounted to just compiling existing information on fracking, 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.
“We don’t fear a study as long as the study is done in a fair, balanced way,” said Lee Fuller, a vice president with the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
The Washington, D.C.-based trade group and other industry associations believe that hydraulic fracturing is adequately regulated by the states. They point to regulations for drilling wells and setting cement casings to keep chemicals, oil and gas away from groundwater.
“Hydraulic fracturing has not presented environmental risks in context of the current regulatory regime of the states,” Fuller said.
DeGette, though, has said clean drinking water is a national priority and a national standard is needed. Her bill would also require companies to disclose the substances used in fracking. Companies guard their recipes for competitive reasons.
Lachelt said a federal minimum standard is necessary because laws vary from state to state. New regulations in Colorado require companies to tell state regulators what chemicals they’re using if the chemicals are above certain volumes.
“There are many states that aren’t as far along as (Colorado),” Lachelt said. “And Colorado has a long way to go.”