Congress Inches Forward Toward Regulating Hydraulic Fracturing


We need to “move forward” with a working group in order to discover the best drilling practices for the safe extraction of shale gas, Jim Costa (D-CA), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources said at a June 4th oversight hearing on unconventional fuels and the potential of shale gas.

The hearing didn’t really resemble its title. Or rather, I couldn’t tell if “potential” referred to the benefits of shale gas or its potential for contaminating our groundwater. The hearing had an identity crisis. Though most of the questioning from the majority, Rep. Scott Borel (D-OK) excluded, focused on the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing, the hearing lacked the chemical expertise in its witnesses to adequately answer most of their questions. The lone opponent to the current regulatory structure, Albert Appleton, also failed to add anything substantive regarding the fracturing process, but went on global warming rabbit trails. Surprise, surprise, Congress essentially wasted time and money trying to get at answers that nobody was really qualified to answer.

The hearing reached a low point when Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) forced Mike John to read from a list of chemicals that Chesapeake has disclosed to the sub-comittee. A reluctant Johns finally complied, but when it became obvious that more could be gained from reading a Greek lexicon aloud, Hinchey relented and tried to get John to admit that Benzene is found in their fracturing chemicals.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Government to not regulate the fraturing process is their inability to organize a hearing to get at real answers. Stay tuned.

To read the testimonies of each hearing witness, click on their name below.

Mr. Douglas Duncan
Associate Coordinator, Energy Resources Program
United States Geological Survey

Mr. Scott Kell
Ground Water Protection Council

Mr. Mike John
Vice President of Corporate Development and Government Relations, Eastern Division
Chesapeake Energy Corporation

Mr. Lynn Helms
Director, Oil and Gas Division
North Dakota Industrial Commission

Mr. Albert F. Appleton
Infrastructure and Environmental Consultant
Former Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System

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Comment by Rita McConnell on June 12, 2009 at 4:41am
I agree completely on the SRBC/DRBC comments as well. I have the same questions about that. If we're going to give EPA primacy on this, what is the role of those groups moving ahead? How do we transfer the work they've already been doing, and how do we avoid another round of industry confusion on how and to whom permits and reporting need to be submitted?
Comment by Rita McConnell on June 12, 2009 at 4:38am
Tom -- That's fair. My point is, you can find out easily what may be in anyone's fracing fluid (PA Marcellus Committee just finished a fact sheet on it, and has been readily sharing that in presentations as well), just not what specifically is anyone's fracing fluid. And its important to remember that dilution factor -- we're talking about 0.05 percent of millions of gallons of water. I think people forgot that we're all likely exposed to more toxins than that in greater strength on a daily basis. As far as precaution has gone, just think about the issues we generated for ourselves on our fear of terrorism. Caution is a good thing -- but you can't make any progress in the world or move ahead based on fear on "maybes" that have no scientific basis.
Comment by Tom Copley on June 11, 2009 at 3:05pm
Rita and Roy-- As you know, the companies are not required by law to disclose their exact fracking fluid recipes and they don't. Therefore, Mr. Applegate appears to be suggesting that there can be a basis for using the so-called precautionary principle to stop all drilling in at least in the big city watershed areas including the Delaware Basin. In other words, he argues for an a priori justification to stop the drilling, not because of scientific fact, but because we are merely concerned that water pollution from the fracking fluids might be dangerous to the public, and we really don't know for sure because specific fracking fluid recipes are not known. -- Tom
Comment by Tom Copley on June 11, 2009 at 9:42am
Rita-- DRBC and SRBC are federal agencies based on interstate compacts signed under Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, respectively. The governors of each member state serve on the Commission along with a representative of the federal government appointed by the President (usually from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). The DRBC actually predates both the EPA and the Clean Water Act, yet was one of the very first government agencies to address water pollution. My only point in mentioning them was that they already have a mandate to regulate water pollution when it crosses state boundaries. I thought one of Mr. Applegate's arguments for why federal regulation of fracking would be a good idea is because nobody is minding the store. He says,
Many streams traverse more than one state making common rules for interstate situations essential if development is to proceed in an orderly manner and if a race to the bottom to avoid the requirements of
good environmental housekeeping is not to be created.
Perhaps Applegate doesn't realize that these two Commissions' jobs to handle such regulation in the most prospective regions for the Marcellus shale formation. My only question is why bring in yet another regulatory body when these two Commissions already exist to do this job? -- Tom
Comment by Rita McConnell on June 11, 2009 at 7:20am
I think Appleton is saying this because each oil field services company has not released their exact fracing fluid recipe. But they have released the chemical used in fracing -- just not the actual mix. Thats the part thats proprietary -- the mix. Not the chemicals used. Anyone who wants to look can fnd a list on PA DEP's web site, or on the River Reporters site. If thats the real reason he says that, than I see no truth in that statement.
Comment by Rita McConnell on June 11, 2009 at 7:18am
Quick point -- in case readers don't know this -- SRBC and DRBC are in fact arms of the federal government -- they are not state or local. Their authority is federal from the Clean Water Act I believe.
Comment by Tom Copley on June 11, 2009 at 6:05am
In reading over the various testimonies, I found that Mr. Douglas Duncan from the USGS, did not directly address the issue of water pollution but rather talked about the role of USGS research and assessments. Mr. Lynn Helms from the No. Dakota Industrial Commission made a powerful statement that state regulators in No. Dakota are doing an effective job of monitoring and inspecting drilling activity in the State and protecting their water resources. Of course, his state does not have any very large metro areas such as New York City or Philadelphia to provide water for. Mr. Scott Kell's presentation from the Ground Water Protection Council was excellent, and backed up the point of view that state regulators are doing everything possible through regulation of the industry to assure the availability and viability of water supplies. I'm not sure though whether Mr. Kell ever directly addressed the question of long range threats to the purity of drinking water supplies in the country's largest eastern cities. For some reason, the testimony of Mr. Mike John from Chesapeake was completely missing from the web site and not downloadable. I would have liked to have heard what he had to say. Mr. Albert F. Appleton's testimony was certainly quite adversarial towards the shale gas industry, yet he seems more like a traditional environmental advocate to me rather than any hard-core greenie . He was genuinely concerned about the purity of New York City's drinking water and the possibility of long range threats posed to it by drilling activities in the city's upstate NY watershed. He also talked about the Deleware River Basin. The point he made about potential costs of cleaning up environmental problems being externalized by the industry through lack of regulation and enforcement seemed like a reasonable claim for him to make, although perhaps it wasn't completely supported by his testimony. What Mr. Appleton failed to ever address is exactly how a federal regime of regulation and monitoring by the EPA could improve upon the existing field of state-based regulation and control, except for the possibility that he emphasized it could employ the "new sustainable accounting of the future". There was never any indication given by him why state regulators could not sufficiently employ any such new accounting standard as warranted by the local situation in their state. The Delaware and Susquehanna Basin Commissions certainly do a very adequate job of regulating toxic discharge when waterways cross state boundaries.

What did you make of Mr. Appleton's point that the "shale gas generating the
opposition to its use of fracking and is feeding rapidly escalating political controversy." He seemed to be saying the industry is its own worst enemy. Any truth there?

-- Tom

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