Regulatory Report: Congress Eyes Laws Governing Hydraulic Fracturing

The debate over the use of hydraulic fracturing to enhance underground oil and gas production is flaring at several points in Congress.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The debate over the use of hydraulic fracturing to enhance underground oil and gas production is flaring at several points in Congress.

The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has created a boom in the production of natural gas from previously uneconomic shale formations. But in some regions, hydraulic fracturing chemicals are believed to have contaminated groundwater supplies.

Shale gas comprises about 20% of natural gas produced in the U.S. The Energy Information Administration estimates it will make up almost half of the nation’s production by 2035.

Bills are pending in both houses of Congress to remove the exemption that fracturing chemicals have from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The bills also would require companies to disclose what chemicals they intend to use in hydraulic fracturing operations.

On the orders of President Barack Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has formed a task force to explore hydraulic fracturing issues.

The panel will identify any immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of hydraulic fracturing. It also will develop recommendations to federal agencies on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.

Environmental groups have complained that six of the seven panel members, including chairman John Deutch, had financial conflicts of interest involving the oil and gas industry.

The Interior Department is examining whether new leases for drilling on federal land should require drillers to disclose the chemicals they add to water and sand to crack open shale deposits of natural gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has a congressionally mandated hydraulic fracturing evaluation underway, recently identified sites for case studies.

The studies will be conducted at shale-gas production sites in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Texas and Colorado.

Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development, said, “This is an important part of a process that will use the best science to help us better understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.”

EPA said its review will use the best available science and independent sources of information, and will be conducted using a transparent, peer-reviewed process.

The Government Accountability Office also is expected to enter the fray. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has asked it to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water sources and determine if additional government regulation is warranted.

Cardin, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee’s Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, said the report would outline “the potential damage to the health of those living near such drilling operations and environmental contamination that could affect future generations.”

Duke University researchers recently told Congress that they have completed a study that found high levels of methane in well water collected near shale-gas drilling and hydro fracturing sites -- but no evidence of chemical contamination from fracturing fluids.

They analyzed water samples from 68 private groundwater wells across five counties in northeastern Pennsylvania and New York.

Meanwhile, Texas became the first major gas-producing state to require oil companies to disclose the chemicals they use on every hydraulic fracturing job. Although a few other states (Wyoming and Arkansas) have passed similar measures, the Texas law is significant because it is the largest gas-producing state, with 30% of national output, and because the gas industry supported the legislation.

Coal Ash Disposal

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has claimed that 33 active coal ash disposal sites in 19 states may be violating a federal ban on open dumping.

The environmental activist group said its survey found that levels of groundwater contamination at coal ash landfills or impoundments nationwide are high enough to trigger the “open dumping” provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The disposal sites are in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.

It said that based on a review of recent groundwater monitoring data from state agencies, the 33 sites meet the open dumping criteria for one or more coal ash-related pollutants: arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury, and selenium. It noted that groundwater that meets the open dumping criteria is toxic and unsafe to drink.

EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said: “EPA put rules in place in 1979 that should have forced closure or cleanup at contaminated sites long ago. Because EPA was prohibited by law from cracking down on open dumping violations, they have been largely ignored by industry, so the pollution continues to this day, and in some cases has gotten worse.”

The EIP study also said groundwater contamination from coal ash is a long-lasting problem. One facility examined in the report stopped dumping coal ash in its landfill in 1977, but groundwater around the site is still contaminated.

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