The nation’s top environmental regulator today defended the government’s just-launched study of a controversial drilling technique used to produce natural gas from shale rock, amid criticisms the process could contaminate underground water supplies.
“States are doing more and more investigation of complaints by their citizens that their water is being impacted,” said Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is reviewing the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. “We’re doing a study specifically because citizens and their representatives have said they are concerned. They want to know it’s safe, and I think that’s a fair question.”
The EPA just began studying the issue, after Congress mandated the investigation, and it expects to report its findings by early 2012.
Using the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” energy producers inject fluids deep underground under high pressure to break up shale rock and release gas locked within it. Fracking holds the promise of unlocking an estimated 1,744 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the U.S. — enough to fuel the nation for another 90 years at current rates of consumption.
The technique is now regulated at the state level, but several bills pending in Congress aim to force companies to disclose the chemicals they use and expand the EPA’s power to regulate the process. Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee also have launched an inquiry into the process.
A 2004 study by the EPA found no evidence that drinking water had been tainted by hydraulic fracturing. That six-year-old review is frequently cited by the energy industry and fracking advocates as evidence that the process is sound. But critics have argued that review was flawed and a new analysis is essential.
The 2004 analysis was a “literature review,” and “there were no samples taken,” Jackson told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing today. “That study is widely cited as saying, ‘see, that proves it’s safe,’ and I don’t think that’s a fair or accurate summation of that study. I think that’s an overbroad reading. We need some data.”
Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, pressed Jackson to provide assurance “that the EPA will not make any moves to regulate hydro fracking until you’ve completed your study.”
Jackson said the EPA’s hands were tied unless Congress gives the agency more power, and that under current law, the EPA can “regulate only hydrocarbons or diesel fluid in injections right now.”
Green said later that he believed that resolved the question of whether “the EPA might decide they have the authority” to regulate fracking now, without intervention from Congress.
Lawmakers and senators have sent a flurry of letters during the past two days about the issue.
On Tuesday, Reps. John Sullivan, R-Okla., and Mike Ross, D-Ark., sent a missive to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., insisting that regulating hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act “would add burdensome and unnecessary regulatory requirements to the drilling and completion of oil and gas wells, which could result in increasing costs of producing domestic natural gas resources.” Sullivan and Ross urged Congress to hold off on legislation on fracking until the EPA study is complete.
Today, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sent his own letter to Jackson, warning that increased regulation could “handicap our efforts” to develop domestic energy sources and could push production overseas. “We should let states regulate fracking guidelines, instead of establishing federal mandates or a government takeover of yet another industry.”
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., offered a different view, in asking the EPA to investigate a case of water contamination that Pennsylvania regulators have linked to a gas company’s operations in the state. In a letter to Jackson on Monday, Casey said the incident raises “the question of whether the necessary steps have been taken to protect Pennsylvania families and communities against the detrimental side effects of drilling.”