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Industry Defends Drilling, Ignores Water Contamination

Industry Defends Federal Loophole for Drilling Before Packed Congressional Hearing

Abrahm Lustgarten

In a packed and sometimes contentious hearing [1] on Capitol Hill Thursday, representatives of the oil and gas industry and their state regulators vigorously defended the practice of injecting toxic fluids underground without federal regulatory oversight [2].

The House Energy and Minerals subcommittee called the hearing to
explore the economic and environmental risks associated with the
practice, called hydraulic fracturing [3], after a string of reports of water contamination related to drilling across the country were reported by ProPublica [2].
Hydraulic fracturing is currently exempted from the Safe Drinking Water
Act, but both the House and Senate are drawing up legislation that
would close the Bush-era loophole and reinstate the Environmental
Protection Agency's authority over the fracturing process.

The House version of the bill [4],
which would also require drilling companies to disclose the names and
amounts of the chemicals they inject underground, is expected to be
introduced Tuesday.

In the hearing, industry-affiliated groups and an executive of Chesapeake Energy told the committee [5]
(PDF) that state regulations of hydraulic fracturing are sufficient and
effective and insisted that the fracturing process and the chemicals it
uses are safe. They said regulating the process under the Safe Drinking
Water Act would add a needless layer of regulation that would cost
billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

But a close reading of the law shows that the Safe Drinking Water Act
already defers regulatory authority over oil and gas drilling to the
states and that reversing the exemption in question would mainly
provide a baseline for best practices and give the federal government
authority to investigate contamination cases or disastrous accidents.

"I frankly think the oil and gas companies have been running a scare
campaign," Colo. Representative Diana DeGette, a co-sponsor of the bill
along with Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Jared Polis (D-Co) , said after
the hearing. "I don't know if the oil and gas industry doesn't
understand the bill or if they are intentionally misrepresenting the

Much of the debate centered on issues unearthed in a series of articles by ProPublica [6],
which has been investigating natural gas drilling for the past year.
The articles focused on numerous cases of drilling-related water
contamination that have been documented across the country. In
most of those cases, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency
have said that their investigations were hampered because the drilling
fluids are largely kept secret
and because the agency does not have authority to investigate whether
hydraulic fracturing was indeed the cause. In one case, in Ohio,
hydraulic fracturing was listed as one of the main causes leading to
contamination and an explosion that ruined a house.

Among those who testified at the hearing was Scott Kell [8]
(PDF), the oil and gas regulator for the state Ohio and president of
the Ground Water Protection Council, whose members include both
industry officials and state regulators.

Kell personally conducted the Ohio investigation that named
hydraulic fracturing as a contributing factor in water contamination
there, yet Kell repeated the industry position that there has never
been a single case of contamination in which hydraulic fracturing was
proven to be the cause. Kell also introduced letters from state
regulators in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Alabama and Texas
refuting ProPublica's findings.

"The states have become aware of press reports and websites alleging
that six states have documented over one thousand incidents of ground
water contamination resulting from the practice of hydraulic
fracturing," Kell said. "Such reports are not accurate."

In fact, ProPublica's stories documented more than 1000 cases in
which water was contaminated in the same places where fracturing takes
place. In most of those cases the EPA said it was impossible to prove a
link to fracturing because researchers don't have access to the
complete list of chemicals industry uses - without that list they say
they can't trace the contaminants to their source with certainty.

Officials in Colorado, where ProPublica reported that much of the
contamination has occurred, did not issue such a statement refuting the

When New Mexico Congressman Martin Heinrich spoke in the hearing, he
sought to clarify New Mexico's position and keep the hearing on course.

"We are trying to get at this from a standpoint of more science and
less ideology; I know that's difficult sometimes," he said. "I would
mention that while we had zero cases of usable ground water
contaminated, we have a number of cases of surface water contaminated
from products."

When asked about the record of Chesapeake Energy, the nation's largest
independent gas producer, Mike John, a vice president of government
relations for Chesapeake, told the committee that "I would emphasize
that in my experience we have not seen any problems with hydraulic
fracturing in my career." John did not mention the recent Louisiana case in which 16 cattle died [9] after allegedly drinking spilled fracturing fluids at a Chesapeake well site - a case that is still under investigation.

The hearing descended to rancor at several points, with proponents of
regulation berating the industry for fighting regulation even as it
insists that clean water is a priority, and with opponents expressing
frustration over what more federal oversight might mean for their
state's economy, a signal that even in a Democrat-controlled Congress, legislation to regulate hydraulic fracturing may face a tough road [4].

"I am proud that I am supported by the oil and gas industry because
they employ a lot of people in my state and I am going to stick up for
them," said Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK). "I am sick and tired of a lot of
folks in my own caucus coming after the largest employer in my state."

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